“I know that my parents, the very people I was supposed to trust, I didn’t quite trust. When I was very young my mother told me a joke, which I well remember thinking was mysteriously not in any way funny or even comprehensible, ending with the punch line “Never trust anyone, even your own mother.” Was that supposed to be advice to me or was she recounting her own childhood experience? Or had one led to the other?
Her preoccupations with us and achievements for herself kept her busy, and probably exhausted, too. So, “Did she have time and energy to show and give you any loving warmth?”
I’ll answer for Stanley, Lila and Richard, who aren’t here to answer for themselves. I’m afraid the answer will have to be, clearly and definitely, No. For them. For me it’s probably what many people would say about their own childhood: “Some, but not really enough, not at all what I think or then thought I needed, or at the right time, or in the way I probably thought I needed it.” And for all of us I’ll have to append: “ – – for whatever her reasons.
Yet, tumbling memories make me question that verdict for myself. Objectively these memories are peripheral stuff, with no logical relationship to the question. But during the time of these involvements and my awareness I felt her warmth and love, just as I do now in recalling these events.
First, the two weeks before summer camp: Every single item – – every sock and handkerchief and pillow-case, blanket and piece of clothing had to have a nametag sewn onto it. This tiny scrap of cloth could be attached only by hand, with needle and thread; no such things as iron-ons. Packing enough for all three kids’all-summer away, she made the time for nametags.
Second: in school, beginning around fourth grade, the books we had, even though they were certainly diluted for little minds, started to get serious and began to be on serious topics. She’d buy a copy from the publisher as we were reading it because she wanted to learn for herself and along with me: Dickens, medieval history, science. She always wanted to learn – -about anything; but that was also somehow about me, about her wanting to know: What was I thinking about these things?
Third: All the groceries in those days when we were very young were packed in brown paper bags. When we first brought our schoolbooks home, for each and every one of them she made an exactly fit and crisply folded cover from the bags. No wrinkles. She cared about the books, yes; but also about us, that we’d be proud and comfortable in class, not conspicuous or disgraced, as she must have felt wearing dresses, she said, that recognizably were hand-me-downs from the families of one or another of her classmates. True, her memories of poverty and absent parents never left. But we also knew in her way she was caring for us.
Fourth, I have their monogrammed silverware and use it every day, a fancy “L” on each piece. Probably it’s plate. But I have regrets about using it every day when to them it was sacrosanct. It’s kept now in the kitchen drawer that has a plastic holder compartmentalized for similar kinds of utensils; one for forks, knives, teaspoons, soup-spoons, serving ladles – – or any optional assemblage. Five different compartments altogether, although in life there are many different subspecies within each category of silverware.
She never ran off to a dude ranch because she “couldn’t take it any more” when it was their turn to entertain; she’d be home to do her part for that. She knew her duty. Starting in the afternoon she’d lasso me in, an eager accessory, for the delicate work ahead. You couldn’t entrust certain tasks to the just-hired, by-the-hour “help”.
Acquiring them earlier in the day had been my father’s job. He’d cruise the streets of nearby all-black Bennington Park until encountering a likely-looking lone female pedestrian, slow next to her roll down the window and inquire whether the lady might want work for that evening.
(Laughingly he told the possibly-apocryphal story of once getting the reply that “O.K. but I can’t be free until after I’ve seen my last patient.” Perhaps this was his peculiar way of putting the joke on himself, of protesting the ridiculous in his own – – and our own – – arrogance and pretensions. But it may also have been his illustration of “the exception proves the rule” by pointing out how shockingly rare it was to encounter an educated professional [female!] within this sub-community of presumed concentrated ignorance and likely criminality.)
These hourly add-ons were mostly for what didn’t require constant supervision. Once you told them what to do and showed them how, they’d pretty much do it. But this you couldn’t let them do; this you had to do yourself. Unquote.
Not that I ever minded or felt put upon. It was an important enterprise even though I knew I’d be put away upstairs before the official opening. For me the actual opening would be this stage-setting long before the curtain formally rose.
With the table expanded and dressed in damask, she and I folded napkins in her precisely prescribed manner and gently set one down to the left of each plate. Next: the silver. My mother carefully opened the lid of this heavy walnut box slumbering alone on its three-legged corner table. We used our own everyday but this held “the good silver”. Therein lay piles of gray felt sacks each bulging with a particular species of tableware highly polished before its last interment after its most recent outage. She removed these slowly and one-by-one, as if taking a sacred Torah from its arc; I expected a chant. Or exhuming bodies from a mass grave. Then: glass and stemware. And now it was my time to learn and do.
There are normal forks, salt forks and cake forks; teaspoons, tablespoons, soupspoons, grapefruit spoons and icecream spoons; dinner knives, steak knives and butter knives. And, as for crystal and stemware, there are tumblers, steins, flutes, shot glasses, cocktail glasses and special glasses for different wines. The glasses all go from behind the plate in a special sequence from right to left. And some silver goes atop the napkin also in a special sequence, from right to left on the left side of the plate, and, on the right side, different silver goes from left to right.
She closely supervised every step of the way. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of silverware, tableware and stemware as well as of all object-placements rules. Her insistence on exactitude and on my learning all that she knew were to me signs of her warmth. Sharing her secret concerns and expertise somehow meant trust. We were in something together. I always loved doing these “chores” with her.
Much later it all seemed bizarrely Edwardian and decidedly at odds with her childhood catch-as-catch-can brutal table experiences that she described – – such as having been doused with icewater for the offense of not fetching an older (working) brother’s coffee on command; his offence (never designated as that) had gone unpunished, unremarked.
If you ask me again how did I feel about her, I’ll repeat that I loved setting the table with her.”
c copyright 2019
All Rights Reserved by Joseph S. Lobenthal