Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Terrible Faux Pas

This is the story of three gifts.

As I write my memoir, I have been struggling to understand my mother's depression and the seething anger that percolated beneath the surface of our family when I was growing up.

Recently, I called my older sister, hoping she might be able to fill in some of the gaps.

“Do you think dad had an affair?” I asked, not expecting an affirmative answer, but not at all surprised when it came.


“What makes you think so?”

“I saw them kissing.”

“Was it Evelyn?”

“Yes. It was when mom took you to the hospital in Denver.” When I was six or seven that is, when I got my doll, Orangeeta.

I suppose I have always wondered about dad and Evelyn, although I rarely allowed these thoughts to become active. Evelyn was a beautiful blonde in her twenties who lived with her parents across the street. I remember a huge smile and bubbly laugh, tight stirrup pants and sweaters. She and my father would go skiing together – my mother never learned to ski - and my father always seemed younger when she was around. Dad liked to joke and be the life of the party, and Evelyn provided an enthusiastic audience.

Somehow it never occurred to me to consider how mom must have felt about this woman. I naively assumed that Evelyn was equally a friend of my mother. Once, when I was 8 or so, I used my allowance to buy mom a picture frame for her birthday. Mom seemed to like it, but her smile froze when I explained that I had chosen the frame because the model in the cardboard picture looked like Evelyn. I was hurt and puzzled when mom shakily asked why I would give her such a thing.

Now, after having experienced the crushing rejection of my own husband’s affair with a woman he found more attractive, I can begin to understand the source of my mother’s pain and bitterness. Later, Evelyn married and moved to Houston, where she and her husband, a professor, were murdered in their bed by a disgruntled graduate student. How did my father grieve this loss? What looks and unspoken words passed between my parents when they heard this news? Whatever they were, my parents kept them private, their arguments, if not their hostility, buried well beneath the surface.

Although I'm sure mom didn't keep score, in my mind, the other gift offsets the terrible faux pas of presenting my mother with a likeness of her husband's pretty mistress.

This gift is also a picture, a cheesy bas relief of a colonial style kitchen, molded in plastic copper. I seem to remember spending 49 cents on it at the five and dime on Main Street when I was quite young. (Allowances were much smaller in those days.) When mom opened the present, I could tell not only that she liked it, but that she was visibly touched.

Much later, when I was an adult, she told me that this tacky picture was one of her favorite gifts. She said that even when I was a little girl, it showed that I paid attention, that I understood her style, and tastes.

This ticky tacky plastic picture hangs in my kitchen. It doesn't match anything, but it reminds me of my mother and the prized gift she once gave to me.


  1. Oh there you are Frankie. The picture frame was a faux pas indeed but am sure your mom didn't hold it against you coz you were so young and therefore unable to comprehend the nuances of relationships.
    The colonial style kitchen looks wonderful. I love the little details - the rough look of the bricks, the lines on the wood panelled floor, the little rug, and the dark shades on the utensils. Great choice!

    - Bijita

  2. Until I started reading your blog, I never thought about objects that way. Each one has a memory for me too, of course, but I hadn't spared any thought as how deep each one's history and significance in our lives went. There's a lot of pain in this post, but I loved reading it.

  3. My mother struggled with her own demons as well. My sister and I have only recently been able to talk about how things were when we were kids. (I'm 42, she's 45)

    Great post.

  4. Thanks Chrissy, Sujatha, and Bijita for your comments. It's so nice to know someone is reading all this every so often! Chrissy, I hope you'll get lots of stories from your mom. I didn't even know what questions to ask until I was in my 40s.