Sunday, November 1, 2015
My Mother, Part 4
So since they’ve gotten a good reception, one more blog about my mother...
She was a supreme and wily entertainer who hosted large dinners at our home at least once a month, bridge games twice weekly, and cocktail parties whenever the urge hit her. She had a large contingent of friends, almost all of whom were Europeans, and freely admitted that she always invited the people she distrusted most because she thought it wise to keep the pyromaniac in the firehouse. She routinely made couscous for fifty people and strangely, considering her abhorrence of anything German (the war never completely left her), sauerkraut and sausages for a multitude.
My mom was a versatile cook but not always a good one. She authored lamb burgers from the leftovers of a leg of mutton, and the odor was so pungent I could smell it from the street. On lamb burger day, I’d bicycle past the house, and go to the local luncheon counter to have a grilled cheese sandwich. She also made poached eggs in aspic, a dish so repulsive I hid in my room whenever she prepared them for her guests, who pretended delight but left most of the treat in their plates. I remember the soft yellow yolk, once pierced, spreading through the aspic like gangrene. You had to be there.
Once or twice a year, my parents would host a costume party and the cream of the Washington francophone society would show up with the women in some sort of déshabillé featuring deep cleavages, mesh stockings and split skirts. The men were less original, coming as tired pirates or soldiers. One time, a visiting French consul came as an American, wearing a cheap suit from Sears and size fourteen shoes.
Then there was a party with a French Revolution theme, and one handy man built and brought over a working guillotine. There were no safety mechanisms whatsoever; you pulled the lever and a ten-pound metal blade, sharp as a razor, came crashing down on the cutout for the victim’s neck. The partygoers used it to slice the baguettes.
The guests always drank prodigiously, and the day before a large party my father would go to Paul’s Liquors and buy cases of booze The invited generally arrived already tipsy from a cocktail party or two, and a dozen couples, in one evening’s time, would go through two cases of wine and one of hard liquor, as well as a bottle or two of after-dinner liqueurs. One of my mother’s better tricks was to serve a few bottles of good French wine at the start of the dinner, and then switch to cheap Gallo poured from crystal carafes for the main course. No one noticed the difference and if they did, they didn’t care.
My parents were not heavy drinkers but in retrospect it seems drunkenness and alcoholism were simply part of the environment.
On any given evening, the guests might include the French parish priest, a severe looking heavy drinker with wandering hands and a penchant for dirty jokes, and the head of the French news service, Agence France Presse, and his wife. The two detested each other and would get increasingly vituperative as the evening and drinking went on. I remember that one night, the man’s wife, tired of the abuse, stormed out of our house after dinner, climbed into their car, and drove it into a telephone pole. She was too drunk to be injured but the arrival and departure of the ambulance taking her to the hospital added a surreal element to the gathering. I was often drafted to prepare and serve drinks, and got pretty good at knowing who drank what, and when to water down the liquor…
The after-party discussions focused heavily on who was sleeping with whom. Was the French wife of a CIA officer really having trysts with the correspondent for Le Monde? And what about the pretty blonde teacher at the French lycée whom everyone knew was conducting a passionate affair with the owner of a local French restaurant? Strange, considering everyone thought he was a homosexual…
As in any society, information in this small circle of friends and acquaintances was a commodity, and my mother was an artful gossip. She loved nothing more than getting the goods on someone and parlaying her knowledge into negotiable form. When the gossip was about her, which happened from time to time, she operated on the principle that there was no such thing as bad publicity. This philosophy never seemed to harm the doyenne of the French community.