Sunday, May 8, 2011
My mother in 1987. Note the smile.
My mother in 193?. Having been told she has a crooked smile, she is serious.
My mother and me in 1953. Note that she insisted upon wearing her glasses for this portrait. That shows character.Or stubbornness. She has worn contact lenses ever since.
Because it is Mothers Day, a holiday beloved of florists and purveyors of cards bearing prepackaged sentiments, and not because I am trying to extricate myself from my mother’s capacious and architecturally-correct doghouse, and I would like enumerate a few of the many things that I love about my mother.
Her vocabulary: She uses words like fenestration and curvilinear in regular conversation. On her answering machine, she asks the caller to “kindly leave a message”.
Her cuisine. When we were children in Hingham, back when Chef Boyardee spaghetti was foreign cuisine, and pigs-in-a-blanket and celery sticks were the acme of hors d’oeuvres, my Belgian, raised-in-Egypt mother fed us yogurt and falafel, sautéed kidneys, Italian cold cuts, French cheese, pasta with pesto, Syrian apricot leather, steak tartar and each morning, one raw egg yolk each. Much of that was not available in Hingham; she had to venture into dubious neighborhoods of the ‘city’ to find such delicacies. Our friends and cousins, served a bowl of fresh yogurt or raw meat with raw eggs, generally declined to eat again chez nous; until they grew up, developed palates, and then came in droves to dine à la Monique.
Her organization: She labels everything – you never have to be in doubt whether a painting was acquired in a gallery in Brussels in 1955 or inherited from a great aunt or presented by an admirer in 1977, because there will be a sticker on the back telling you the facts of the case. In her impeccable broom closet she has a box labeled: Monique’s Tiny Tools.
Her thrift: Aside from vintage lingerie, she has saved children’s clothes knit by Syrian nuns. (Are there many nuns in Syria? I always thought so.) Downstairs you can find almost every Shakespeare play complete with my father’s prep school annotations, as well as his assignment book from Brush Hill School, circa 1932. Although to be fair – and this has been pointed out to me very strongly – my mother is not personally responsible for the fact that in the barn and the basement you can find every ice skate ever worn by my father and his brother; Harvard Lampoons from the late 30’s (a treasure); Browne and Nichols beanies, and about 500 lbs of opera on 78’s – all those things came with the house she and my father inherited it from his father.
And she has never, to my knowledge, thrown away a book. In her house you can find books & books on such varied subjects (and these are a mere amuse bouche) as: theories of color, cotton waste, oriental carpets, arctic exploration, vernacular architecture, anything Egyptian, French cooking, learning German, Portuguese, Czech, Arabic, Swedish and Urdu. She has kept all our MAD magazines from the 60’s and 70’s and keeps them in the 3rd floor bathroom. If you ever lose a child – or an adult – for long periods of time in her house, that is where you will often find him. (It is not a coincidence that in my 2nd floor bathroom we have our much smaller collection of 80’s MAD magazines, as well as collections of Doonesbury, Gary Larson, Ogden Nash and P.G. Wodehouse. It is hommage.)
Her loyalty: When she arrived at Smith College in 1948, fresh from Cairo and a Swiss boarding school (where the English girls and their field hockey sticks gave her a lifelong aversion to playing team sports; an aversion I either inherited or came by honestly), she lived on campus with seven other girls, all Americans. They and their families took to this “fetching”* colonial, and eased her passage into American life. They were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. You can see them all in my parents’ wedding pictures, wearing hats that would not have looked amiss at the recent royal wedding of millinery notoriety. The Smith girls remained the best of friends through all the rigors of marriage and motherhood: puling infants, adolescent children, children making unfortunate marriages, and finally, grandchildren.
Her diligence: Because she was married to an America and lived in the US and spawned American children, my mother had the novel idea to become a naturalized citizen. She did not take this task lightly. Told that there would be questions about American history, my mother studied American history as if for a Ph.D. Her knowledge of the causes of the Revolution, the rational for Manifest Destiny, the exigencies of westward expansion, and the tribulations of Native Americans was vaster than the Immigration and Naturalization officer had ever heard before or since. She knows all the American presidents, in order, backwards and forwards AND she can describe for you the architecture of their houses, their furniture, and can tell you if the wallpaper in the restored Museum-House you will pay $10 to visit is architecturally correct.
Her fashion: This gets challenging. What can you say about a mother who wore bikinis at the Yacht Club in Massachusetts in the 1950’s? French bikinis, not American two-pieces. You can say she had the figure for it. Or you could mention that the Ladies Committee at the Yacht Club asked her to stop wearing bikinis, because there were children present. Also men.
Her sense of color in fashion is as good as her sense of color on houses. I am not the only one who recalls that at my high school graduation (as a trustee she was on the stage) she wore a deep purple dress from Paris, a wide red belt, red sling back heels, and a purple fascinator. In fact, at the one and only high school reunion I ever attended, my erstwhile classmates continued to note her elegance and style. Her style is not limited to the Gallic. Perhaps because of her time in the Middle East or simply because she is fashion-forward, she has always loved and collected ethnic jewelry and clothing. She is just as likely to come to your party in an Uzbek gown, a Guajarati sari, a Nepali shalwar kameez, an Egyptian gallibaya, or a Vietnamese ao dai as a Givenchy dress. She looks great in them all.
Do I dare add that our mother is and has ever been a source of endless quirky-Monique-stories for her numerous children, in-laws, grandchildren, godchildren and random hangers-on? Probably not. Happy Mothers Day.
* So wrote Edward Said, in Out of Place: A Memoir