Archive for February, 2016


Monday, February 8th, 2016

My fourth year was momentous. During that year, my nanny, the person I loved above all else, was dismissed because I loved her above all else. My sisters, both older, started to spend less and less time at home. And, until my birthday, I had a blankie. It was soft, warm and smelled of love and I carried it everywhere.

On my birthday, my father marched me down to the basement, wrenched the blanket from my hands, stuffed it into the incinerator we had next to the furnace, and made me watch through the soot-stained viewing portal as my blanket melted and burned. He said, “It is time to put aside childish things.” My reaction was the four-year-old’s equivalent of, “What?!” In retrospect, I think my father was introducing me to hate because nothing ends childhood quicker than hatred. And I hated that man for a long while.

When I returned upstairs, a Chinese man was waiting for me to measure me for my first suit. Now that I was four, I could eat with the family. That meant I had to dress for dinner. My dress clothes were made to order in Hong Kong. And in six weeks, I had a suit.

I should mention here that I was born deathly allergic to silk and synthetic fabrics, a fact my parents discovered when they laid my 2 month old self on my grandmother’s silk cushion. I turned beat red and struggled to breath and evidently died on the way to the hospital but the paramedics resuscitated me.

The doctor refused to believe that silk was the cause until my mother, lovingly I assume, wrapped me in her silk-lined fur and I stopped breathing again. He called in the rest of the hospital staff and they wrapped me in silk yet again for their astonishment and entertainment. I wonder if my allergy and I were entertainment fodder for my parents’ guests until someone wondered aloud if it was a problem for me. The rashes I suffered from synthetic fabrics were legendary. I looked like great horned toad until I could scrub myself clean.

My clothes were cotton and wool and linen.

As soon as my suit arrived, I went to the table in my crisp, little cotton shirt and my merino wool suit and my oxford shoes and my wool tie.

We sat at the table with our hands folded and our thumbs perched on the edge of the table until my mother took the first bite.

My mother was a very smart person. She had a masters in math from Stanford but had married in the 1930s and learned to dumb her conversations down to an acceptable level for society. In retaliation, she talked. I never saw her breathe. I assume that smoking had so diminished her lung capacity that she could only manage mini-breaths. The result was uninterrupted chatter. Sometimes it was quite funny, sometimes illuminating, sometimes simply incomprehensible.

We were served. I remember sitting there watching her cut her first bite, switch the fork to her right hand, lift it halfway to her mouth and continue to talk. I looked to my father who politely listened while she talked. I looked to my sisters who politely listened to her talking. I would look at my serving becoming a gelatinous blob while she talked.

Even when she finally took that first bite, I had to quash the instinct to wolf the food. It didn’t matter how fast I ate, I had to sit there until she was done and she was in no hurry. She had a lot to say. Topics of conversation were limited. My mother was a world-class bridge player. She traveled to play in tournaments. Sometimes that came up. My father was a lawyer and a scratch-handicap golfer. Occasionally that would arise. They would talk about parties they were planning or going to—they entertained a fair amount. Or they would discuss travel plans. The traveled quite a bit. Never politics—ever. Except during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It’s amazing how impending immolation from a Russian thermonuclear device swept plans of travel and parties right out the door. We all knew we were going to die. Anyone who had seen pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki knew that “duck-and-cover” was wishful thinking at best.

I was raised Catholic. On occasion the activities of my god-father were raised as an example of how not to be a Catholic. He was a notorious businessman who shredded competition and employees alike. As he was dying, he bequeathed his vast wealth to the Catholic Church, abandoning his family in the wasteland called, “Having to Work for a Living.” I wonder how well that played at the Pearly Gates?

My father’s father and, after his untimely death, my father’s step-father were both U.S. Senators, which says a lot about my grandmother. I didn’t spend much time with my grandparents. My grandmother was a true believer that children should be seen and not heard. Although in her case, she wasn’t fond of the seeing part either.

We didn’t go out to dinner often but when we did, people knew who we were. They would come to the table to ingratiate themselves with us so that, presumably, we would pass on a good word to my grandfather. Unfortunately, men were expected to stand and remain standing while visitors were present.  My father and I stood quite a bit smiling and nodding at people while they talked. Their speech was punctuated by, “I don’t mean to interrupt your dinner, but…”  I didn’t know it at the time but I was being trained in Neural Linguistic Programming one of the tenets of which is that anything said before the word “but” should be ignored

They talked, I smiled. I would look at my food, which was turning into a gelatinous blob while they talked and told us again how they didn’t want to interrupt our dinner. When they left, I would jam two bites of food before the next visitors would arrive. It made me understand why dogs snarl and snap at people who interrupt their meals.

One of my mother’s friends from the bridge world was a big game hunter. Every once in a while we would receive a large box filled with dry ice and hippo breast, crocodile tail, zebra haunch or leg of lion. Our cook—a marvelous cook but horrible human being—turned everything into chicken. Weird, gamey chicken that might be from another planet, but chicken. We ate bear and snake and Rocky Mountain oysters. The latter were palatable if you ignored what they really were. Whenever we had an exotic meal, my mother would bring out insects dried in a ginger-laced sugar. If you didn’t look at the legs and heads and eyes, they were really good.

My parents taught me to set a formal place setting so that I would never be embarrassed at a formal dinner. Worthwhile training because I attended a number of them. Also because, in my pre and early teens, I was extra kitchen help for parties. To this day, I can set one with my eyes closed.

I know the feel of a fish knife versus a meat knife and their corresponding forks; the consommé spoon versus a hearty soup spoon and their matching bowls. Our consommé bowls had handles on the sides so that the broth could be sipped. That was one of those “depending-on-which-side-of-the-Mississippi-you-were-born-on” things.

The shapes and positions of the glasses: Water, white wine, champagne flute—we never served Californian in those days, red wine, coffee or tea and its spoon, and an aperitif glass before dinner and a digestif glass after. It was a good time to be a drunk. There was a never ending supply of a never ending variety of ways to lose one’s soul to the demon alcohol.

My mother and nanny taught me that people serving me were doing me a favor whether they were serving me food, taking my money, or helping me do some pedestrian task, I was in their debt. Expressions of gratitude were not only polite but they were a requisite part of being a man. They also taught me that I could learn something from every person I encountered. I have since expanded that to animals and plants because I’ve learned so much from them, but that’s another story. My father taught me that women came first…as long as they didn’t require recognition for their intelligence or individuality.

For my 12th birthday and every subsequent birthday I was given a tux. They were resplendent things of delicate Chinese embroidery in black and Maxfield Parrish blue silk. Now, you say, how could I wear a silk tuxedo? Carefully. After I put it on, straightened my tie and cummerbund, I had to wash my hands and be very careful about touching the silk or allowing my neck or chin to rub against the tie. If so, I had a little less than a minute to wash the affected area before the rash would set in. Taking a shit in that tux was not easy. It always ended up with a rash developing in an area I’d rather not talk about.

My manners were exquisite. I stood when someone approached or left the table, held chairs, I held doors, raced around the car to open doors, carried a silver lighter I was given for my 12th birthday to light women’s cigarettes even though I never smoked, offered my jacket when it was chilly. Never interrupted someone when they were speaking. Controlled my boy-like movements so that I wouldn’t be a distraction. And went out of my way to make a woman comfortable at the expense of my own. That year, I started Cotillion. Cotillion was a playground for manners. It honed all we were taught at home or taught those whose parents hadn’t bothered.

It was formal dinners, ballroom dancing and, occasionally, a band playing music we liked so we could dance the way we wanted. My table training became a plus when no one else knew which fork to use. “Ask Schuyler. He knows.” Cotillion in my mind was a way to turn introverted children into severely introverted children. Dancing was mandatory. My best friend was famous for being to dragged out from under the table when it was time to fox trot. Although I was shy, one of our instructors was a friend of my sisters’ whose mere presence sent me into pre-adolescent swooning. I would have done anything for that woman. If she had said, “Kill your father,” I would have said yes. Of course, I was still a little sore about the blanket.

When I was sixteen, I got to know a girl well enough that she invited me over to have dinner with her family. Naturally I arrived in a suit. It never occurred to me not to. The door opened. The mother was wearing a house coat, the father orange coveralls. He may or may not have just escaped from prison. I don’t know. Her parents stared at me like I might have just come out of a flying saucer and there might be a large, metal robot standing behind me whose name might be Gort.

I brought a bouquet of flowers as a hostess gift, which the mother assumed was for my girlfriend but I explained it was for the hostess. They stared at me.

Dinner was served immediately. I seated my girlfriend and waiting patiently behind her mother’s chair waiting to seat her. They stared at me again. The mother laughed heartily and told me I would starve if I waited for her. She insisted I take my seat and I spent the rest of the evening resisting the urge to jump up every time she left or returned to the table.

The television was swung around so the father could watch while eating. That was such a blow to my sense of decorum that I almost loosened my tie.

The mother returned with a platter of gray meat. I can’t say what it was. In fairness to me, it wasn’t around long enough for me to identify it. Before the platter touched the table, the father and the brother grabbed the meat with their hands leaving a tell-tale trail of juice and grease on the table cloth from platter to plate and ate it with an alarming quickness.

The mother scolded them for their lack of manners, took the platter and returned with more meat. She served my girlfriend, me and herself. I waited for her to take the first bite. She cut the meat and lifted the fork to her mouth but the husband signaled by shaking his empty that he needed a beer. She popped up before putting the food in her mouth. This sort of thing happened quite a bit. My girlfriend insisted I eat so I did. I still couldn’t identify the meat. It wasn’t that it was bad. It wasn’t. It just lacked…it was missing…flavor.

The mother was so busy serving her husband and son that she never got around to eating. So she lit up a cigarette. I had never seen anyone smoke at the dinner table before.

She talked. That made me feel at home. She talked with a smile and a delightful laugh about life, asking questions of her husband who grunted what I could only assume were affirmations. She was full of hope and the American Dream.

I didn’t realize that dinner in this house was a race. The first one done won the right to demand that the mother bring out the ice cream. She returned with a tub of ice cream, I don’t know, ten, fifteen gallons?, along with some bowls and spoons. The father and son scooped ice cream letting drips of it join the grease and juice on the table cloth on the way to their bowls.  The son finished his first, raised his hands in victory and left the table.

After the meal, my offer of help in the clean-up refused, I drove home composing the thank you note. And I laughed. I had just eaten a meal that had none of the overlay or under wiring of etiquette and the universe didn’t implode! It was so liberating.

Times have changed. Manners have changed. But the lessons are still with me. A willingness to take time to be nice to someone, to listen, to wait until they have had their share are the parts of my upbringing that remain. It makes me wonder if the world would be a better place if we all sat at the table with our thumbs perched on the edge and waited for the mother to begin.