Monday, January 18, 2016
My Mother's Friend
My mother had dozens of acquaintances, a few well-chosen frenemies, and one friend with whom she warred on and off for twenty years.
Among the acquaintances were men and women in the French book club; the French theater; the Franco-American Friendship Society (of which she was president); the Alliance Française whose members she did not trust; the Thursday afternoon bridge and cocktail crowd; and the French Catholic parish which, she had been told by the priest there, would not have survived without her weekly input of a dozen or so quiches Lorraine sold at the parish bake sales.
Her best frenemy was Madame Ellis, an attractive blonde with two sons and an equally attractive daughter. My mother suspected that Madame Ellis had designs on my father. Additionally, Madame Ellis was married to an American who claimed not to speak French but did, and whom everyone in the French community was certain worked for the CIA. I remember him well, a tall, slightly stooped and thin Ichabod Crane of a man who behaved shiftily whenever he was invited to our house. He shimmered in and out of rooms not generally frequented by the guests and took in everything—paintings on the walls, book titles, album covers, and magazines left open and unattended. My mother could never quite make up her mind on whether to be outraged by his snoopiness, or pleased that our home was important enough to be spied upon.
Her one friend was Kate, a short and breasty woman from a hugely rich French merchant family. To add insult to injury, Kate had written a college textbook for French teachers. The book had gone platinum and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making Kate even richer and able to afford a house in the better part of Northwest Washington, DC; a huge mansion in Neuilly, just outside Paris, and three apartments on the Gulf Coast of Florida. A few times a year, my mother would fulminate on the unfairness of all this. She was further infuriated that her friend drove a fifteen-year-old Volkswagen that broke down often, so that she had to be picked up and taken to the social events both attended.
Kate was a widow. Her husband, a pilot, had been killed in a plane crash shortly after the birth of their third daughter. The late husband had a surviving twin brother, and it was deemed seemly by my mother and the French community that, after a proper amount of mourning, Kate consider an alliance with the twin. He was, all said, a charming man, single, relatively well-off, physically very similar to the original husband, possibly interested in such a union and, it turned out, very gay. To satisfy popular demand, Kate and the twin spent an uneventful weekend together in Florida where little happened, which prompted my mother to say that Kate simply didn’t have the feminine wiles to close the deal.
Kate and I remained friends after my parents’ deaths. I would go to Paris and stay in her mansion, which she seldom visited, preferring, when she was in Europe, to stay at an elegant home for the aged in Switzerland. In her many-chambered house, I would be waited upon by an ancient servant whose cooking skills were limited to variations of mashed potatoes—mostly pancakes, croquettes, and deep-fried wafers of varying thickness.
It was Kate who told me that my mother’s suspicions regarding Madame Ellis were probably well-founded. My father, she said, had reciprocated the interest shown by the duplicitous Frenchwoman married to an American. There had been, Kate intoned darkly, difficult times. Had I not been aware of them?
I hadn’t. My parents rarely argued and almost never fought, though my mother was adept at the silent treatment, which could go on for days.
I’ll never know if Madame Ellis and my father had anything more than a flirtation, and it doesn’t matter after all these years. I do wonder, though, if Kate’s divulgence to me was not a subtle revenge. After all, it was my mother who pushed the hardest to get Kate and the twin together, and my mother claimed to know from the very first moment that the twin played for the other team.