My father sits at the restaurant table. It has a creaseless white linen cloth. The white linen napkins are large and starched. The cutlery is heavy, polished silver. The glasses shine. The waiter stands like a soldier at my father’s elbow, gently pours a small amount of the red wine into the globe. My father sniffs the wine, swirls it and sips it, then nods his assent. Not once does he argue with the wine. It is always just as it should be.
When guests come on a Sunday afternoon, they are people we do not know, a man and his wife from my father’s office. My father directs me to pull out all the tiny green weeds growing up through the white gravel path that leads to the front door. He drives to the Eidelweiss bakery in the Bedford shopping plaza and buys pastries. Sometimes he buys a few new glasses, a bottle of Johnny Walker, and my mother receives these things in the kitchen as an affront, as unnecessary, a waste of the money we don’t have.
After the lunch my father insists though that I play the piano for our guests. I pull back, I say no as politely as possible, sure that the guests do not want to hear my clumsy playing, but my father does not give up.
I do not enjoy my weekly lessons with Miss Spottiswood who does not enjoy them either. I might enjoy them if I practiced in between lessons, and I leave each session with Miss Spottiswood intending to do just that so as not to repeat the awful hour of plonking through what I have not looked at since the week before. But after each class I let the next day go by, and then the next, and another week disappears on me.
I do not play anything well.
If there are no guests, my father likes to have each daughter one by one stand on his knees while he holds their hands, bouncing his knees in time to a Hungarian song about a circus pony. The song gets faster and faster, you shriek, you lose your balance, my father catches you. Everybody laughs.
Usually the house is very quiet, each person by themselves.
On the back slope that leads down to the road are a few scattered evergreens, Christmas trees from years past that my mother has planted. Also there is a small azalea bush that my father gave me for a birthday. It was covered in flowers that night when he crept up the attic stairs after I had gone to bed and left it on the top step. My mother planted it on the back slope, which remains an ignored place. Not like the front of the house that my father tries to make look like something.
Often on weekends he dives into the woods opposite the front door with a lawnmower, telling me to pull out patches of brambles. I do as I am told though I want to stay up in my attic room listening to the radio. I can complain, but not completely cross my father. I must do what he says. And in the evening he and I will dress up and he will drive us into the city to Lincoln Center and we will glide into the crowd, the only time we are in synch, gliding up the red velvet stairs.
I want to like opera, but most of it is unintelligible and not meant for me. Still, I am happy to be somewhere, to be in New York. My father has a small smile on his face, pleased with the surroundings and with the pastries we order at intermission.
“A park!” he says to me once about the woods back home. He wants the woods to look like a park.
My mother despairs when she sees him with the lawnmower. “He runs over half my plants,” she laments. “He doesn’t know the difference.”
There is my mother in the kitchen, in the house, in the garden, housecleaning, making bag lunches for my sisters and me, making three meals a day, easy simple meals but never missing one, reading the New York Review of Books, a novel – Dickens or something from the library. This is what I see of my mother’s world.
My father’s world is his new Ford sedan, is his subscription to the Metropolitan for Saturday nights, is his whiskey and soda on the rocks at night (or cheap wine) with classical music on the Fisher stereo and Somerset Maugham or Iris Murdoch as he sits in the living room in an armchair in lamplight, the narrow French doors closed at the bottom of the stairs, the rest of us upstairs, each in a bed.
“You ruined my life!” I hear my mother cry out one night in the living room. I had heard her get out of bed and go downstairs and knew a fight was coming. My father’s tones never match hers in the late-night fights. It is always her voice that makes the fight, his that tries to tame it all back down.
And in the morning my mother is still distraught, her face creased with pain. I have never seen her carrying the fight over into the next morning. I suggest perhaps she just leave. It seems that this would solve alot of things. We are standing in the living room. “But you kids are all I have,” she says, and I am disappointed. Nothing is going to change.