Blast from the past

Scene from Blast From the Past

I was at a post-funeral “party” this afternoon at an exclusive private country club. I’m sure I’d have to be recommended and approved to join this organization, but because someone in it died and I went to high school with her daughter, they let me right in. I knew I wouldn’t know many people, but that didn’t matter. This girl would care that I showed up.

As I walked toward the front door, I was joined by four black women. I introduced myself as a friend of Mary’s daughter, and they explained that they had been caretakers for Mary Watkins (everyone called her Mary Watt) for the past three years.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the hallowed wooden halls, the thick Persian carpets, and the primarily black and hispanic wait staff.

I ran into Polly right away, extended my condolences, and moved on for now, letting her chat with the throng. Then I spotted two old high school friends. One I keep up with, the other I haven’t seen since graduation. We’ll call the first one “H” and the second one “B.” Here was the conversation as I walked up to H + B and addressed myself to B.

“Hi! It’s great to see you again, B. Do I look familiar to you?”

B’s eyes rolled. Her father had been a state senator. Her wedding had been posted in the New York Times. The name of a Garfinkle was involved.

“Why don’t people understand that it’s rude not to introduce yourself right away,” she said. “Hi, I’m so-and-so. And the other person introduces herself. I mean, do you look familiar? Sure. Of course you look familiar. A lot of people look familiar.”

Our graduating class had 30, no 31, people in it. It had been 30 until we got a newcomer who had been tossed out of St. Christopher’s School for Boys on a pot-related matter. But I digress. I can name every member of this woman B’s family, and I haven’t seen her for 40 years. Practically to the day.

H, a little nervous perhaps, piped up and said, “You remember Susan Smith.”

I pressed on, smiling,”So you’re saying I was rude to you?” I just was floored, but I couldn’t quite believe what she was saying. I wanted to understand, and to offer my side of the story — that I just assumed she would recognize me. Which is the truth.

B seemed not at all interested, and didn’t even hint that she was interested in how I had been doing all these years.

“It just keeps happening over and over again today,” she said. “I’m so tired of it.”

Twice she had called me rude.

“It’s surprising that you’re so frustrated with introductions, given that this is such a high-bred group,” I said.

B repeated herself, “I guess there aren’t any borders for rudeness.” Or something like that.

OK, thrice.

When B turned to the food table, I said to H, who had turned her head and spotted the four black women at the table behind her. Behind them was a rainy seascape — the pool is closed for the year and the boats all in. You could imagine the broad hot lawns of summer, the children in their kayaks and wading shoes, the many umbrella’d drinks served.

“I met these women on the way in,” I said, pleased to be able to tell H something she may not have known, and perhaps to introduce her to them. “They were caretakers for Mary Watt.”

“Obviously,” said H cattily, then turning back around. With a smirk. An actual smirk.

She later mentioned to someone else we were talking to that she and I talked about business sometimes. I said, “I thought we were friends.” She said, “Oh, and well, friends.” I had embarrassed her?

I wondered what year it was, right here in this grand Florida room. It might never have changed from 1968, the year I met these two as young girls.

By then, Polly had come to sit at the caregivers’ table, and waved me over to introduce me. “Thanks,” I said, “We all met. So glad you can sit for a bit.” I got up and got a little food — Polly had arranged for sushi and little brie and fig wraps and deviled eggs. Cubed cheese, of course. Roast beef. An open bar.

There was never any snobbishness to Polly that I can recall. She’s never struck me as judgmental at all. Today, she lives in a modest two-story cottage on a quiet street in Newport News. When I first met her, her family home was bayside and she had her own playhouse by the water. I’m pretty sure she’ll never want for anything material.

I took a moment to look around the room and remember, in a way, the kind of people I had known when I was in high school. My father, a country lawyer, really, had wanted to send his children to private schools after desegregation. In my case, I found myself in school with families who owned swimming pools and ice companies and huge law firms and whose boys wore blue oxford cloth shirts and loafers even on the weekends. Izod for slumming.

I remember struggling with self-image and esteem.

But today, perhaps, I really realized how conservative conservatives really are. And by conservative I mean nothing about politics. I’m just talking about the status quo — a high status quo. The land where sweater sets and pearls are de rigeur. A hair out of place isn’t a great thing, so let’s smooth all hair into sleek triangles that don’t frame the face very well. Let’s not wear any interesting colors. Our people don’t stand out by virtue of wearing fashionable clothes, anyway. Oh, and those without smooth hair are allowed to have very odd haircuts … some pulled back by hairspray or something I couldn’t see. I forget that rich people are conservative, but when they have an odd streak, it comes out in bad hair. Sometimes bad shoes.

But I think worst of all was the slight B intended toward me today, or didn’t intend. No matter. Her disrespect no longer makes me feel like I’m not good enough. In fact, the opposite. Remember Blast from the Past, the movie where a young man has grown up in a fall-out shelter locked down in the 60s because his father thought there’d been an atomic blast? One of my favorite scenes is shortly after Adam finds his way out of the shelter, some 35 years later. His new friend Troy explains Adam’s definition of a “gentleman” and a “lady.”

He thinks that I am a gentleman and 
that you are a lady!
Well, consider the source. I don't
even know what a lady is.
Exactly! I thought a gentleman was
somebody who owned horses. Turns out,
the short and very simple definition
of a gentleman or a lady is: someone
who always attempts to make the people
around him or her feel as comfortable
as possible. That's it! If you don't
do that, nothing else matters. The
cars, the clothes, the houses...
Where did he get all that information?
From the oddest place. His parents
told him. I don't think I got that

In short, I’d much rather make other people comfortable than to make them uncomfortable, because I take making people comfortable as a great definition of “courteousness.”

So it took every fiber in my body not to respond to B, “I’ll tell you what I think is rude ….” right there in the middle of that room, which appeared to be out of the 1960s but had nothing of the true definitions of courteousness and grace. Very little of what Adam had learned from his parents.

If B were to find this blog one day, maybe she’d have a breakthrough. Or not.

I was just happy that I no longer took her aristocratic mannerisms to heart. Oh, I just googled her, and found that she was arrested last year for throwing “a missile” at an occupied vehicle, and for damage to a law enforcement vehicle. Could be she’s not married any more. Tant pis.


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