Wednesday, September 28, 2011

THE RICH LADY ON THE HILL

Her name was Mrs. Whitaker. She lived in a two story white house, surrounded by green lawns and a formal rose garden. She had floor to ceiling windows, lace curtains, plum velvet drapes, silver bowls and Aubusson carpets. An invitation to her house put one, however temporarily, in the upper echelon of Prunewhip, Vermont's social register. When I was four Mrs. Whitaker gave a formal tea for the women of the Ladies Aid Society and my grandmother was invited. She took me along, scrubbed until I was raw, tortured into a state of sausage curls, strangled by a high-collared white blouse - as W.C. Fields said on his deathbed, "All in all, I would rather [have been] in Philadelphia."

Before my grandmother rang Mrs. Whitaker's doorbell (she had a doorbell!), she lined me up against the side of the house and said, "When we are inside, if you see anything unusual, don't talk about it unless someone else talks about it first!" She said it in her, "Disobey this and you will be found floating face down in the Walloomsac River" tone of voice.

We were ushered into Mrs. Whitaker's drawing room and immediately I saw something most unusual. In fact, I had the best view in the house of this most unusual sight, since I was several feet closer to the floor than the other guests. Scattered around the drawing room floor were small irregular lumps, each one covered by a lace doily.

I was so mesmerized by this display (oh so many years later this would become Installation Art...), I barely noticed the single-breasted (blue serge stretched over girdles that turned two breasts into one formidable rampart), mustached women cooing over me and passing me cookies. I waited until they were deep in conversation and pulled up a doily. Sure enough, just as I suspected, a petrified cat turd white with age.

Now this was unusual! In my limited experience, people did talk about unusual events. I sat in corners for hours on end listening to women talk about the antics of drunken husbands, newly weds who gave birth to extremely large premature babies, the idiots from California who tapped the elm trees in their front yard, etc. etc. This was more unusual than any of that, as far as I was concerned. I waited avidly for someone else to talk about the petrified cat turds cum doilies so that I could talk about them also. No one ever said a word.

I left this grand social event with the renewed conviction that grownups were part of some strange species I would never understand.

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