Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Now I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. That was not possible with ten siblings and a father who did unskilled labor for a living. But nevertheless, I am proud of my common roots and like to think that I in no way envy the rich and famous and above all else never aspire to think, act, or mimic their manners or values. That is not to say that I don’t wish to be gracious and pleasing in conversation and manner, but in doing so, I wish to be that way without any affectation or lack of true sincerity.

But that sets the bar fairly high and despite my efforts at true sincerity, I guess the truth is, inadvertently, that we all, at one time or another, aspire to copy those things that make a small segment of those that are rich and famous more likable than others. With those thoughts in mind, I thought I would revisit the painful crash that occurred when, as a young girl, I attempted to meld with people of the upper crust.

My first exposure to the rich and famous was when I met a girl at summer camp. Jane arrived that first day with a small inconspicuous suitcase – unadorned, of pressed cardboard rather than leather. A simple suitcase without gold buckles, without a wee padlock with a key, and without stickers from exotic places. And in her bag was a sad wardrobe. Three pairs of well worn blue jeans and four plaid shirts and a few underthings. There were no Sunday dresses, no jewelry, no bright colorful hair accessories. There were no shiny dress shoes, only a pair of badly beat up runners. There was no makeup and no jewelry. Jane was as plain as Jane could be. And although my cardboard box of stained and limp hand-me-downs had me flagged as ‘dirt poor’, after examining Jane’s stuff, I didn’t feel so bad. My cardboard box, in truth, had a greater variety of cheerful colors and accessories than Jane’s had. Even if some of the clothes were ill fitting. Amazingly this ‘unexpected lift’ in my own situation made me feel a tiny bit sorry for Jane.

But the pleasing part of all this was because of the parallels in our wardrobes, I had the confidence that Jane and I probably had a lot in common. And as I had hoped, Jane seemed to appreciate me in the same way I appreciated her. Jane accepted me for what I was without store-bought clothes and without lace-trimmed Sunday dresses. We became fast friends almost immediately. And after camp, Jane asked me to come and stay with her at her home for a week or so. At this point I knew very little about Jane. But a few things I did know. I knew that no parents or relatives had ever come to camp to visit her, no one had ever called, and she had a wardrobe as sadly lacking as my own.

So I accepted Jane’s invitation without hesitation and on the final day of camp, a Camp Counselor drove Jane home and I accompanied her. I expected to be taken to a humble country home, perhaps a farm, so how surprised was I when we scooted through the city and eventually pulled up to a sprawling gigantic house with a wide and winding paved drive and a four-car garage with two gleaming new vehicles parked out front? And how surprised was I when Jane rang the doorbell of her own home instead of barging in? A young lady of no more than 18 or 19 years opened the door with hair tied in a scarf, dressed in a white dress and nursing shoes with a navy apron on and a dust-cloth in her hand. Jane introduced her to me. The smiling individual that greeting us so warmly and immediately scurried away with my box and Jane's bag was the maid, Sandy. (Maid? There are people in this world that have maids?)

No one else came to greet us except two small boys; Jane’s kid brothers. In no time at all the maid scurried back to us and invited us into the kitchen for fruit, muffins, and juice. She offered me vitamins from a varied selection of bottles in the middle of the table. Vitamins in all shapes and sizes. Tablets, capsules, liquid, even straw containers with perforated rip-off ends that contained powdered vitamins. More vitamins than I had ever seen in my life before.

And after lunch, while Sandy worked feverishly to clean up the lunch things, Jane led the way through a maze of hallways and burnished vases and busts to her bedroom. And how surprised was I to find it had monster windows facing a lush green garden as big as a golf course that extended right to the banks of the river? The windows were draped with rose-colored velvet drapes and candy-pink lace sheers. And there was an overstuffed bed with satin and lace cushions to match. And a closet that extended down the full wall of the large room. A closet with built-in shelves, hanging rods, and even a built in vanity with a small sink. And when Jane slid back the opposing monster mirrored door, I gasped in astonishment and disbelief. There were 60 or more of the most fabulous dresses I had seen – poofy with net underskirts, in every color, long ones, short ones, ribbon and lace bedecked, pastels, whites, floral, and navy frocks, as pristine as clothes just freshly unsealed. There were colored shorts, colored slacks, matching tops, a drawer full of jewelry as big as a giant pirate’s chest with jewels that sparkled like frost and dew-soaked gold. Stuffed animals, china dolls, lovely leather-bond books, etc. etc.

When I finally found my voice, of course the first question was, "But Jane, all you brought to camp was plaid shirts and jeans. Why didn’t you bring any of these lovely things?"

"Oh," Jane said, rather matter-of-factly, "most of this stuff I have never worn. My mother will not let me wear any of these clothes except on very special occasions."

So then I asked as I looked about me with such envy and amazement, "Jane, of all the things in this room, what do you value the most?" And friends, I swear to God, this is true. Jane immediately went to a back corner of that monster closet and rummaged about a bit and eventually came out with a wee little red-covered New Testament. That stunned me more than anything. "This," she said, without further explanation, "is something that my teacher gave me in Grade three."

I didn’t ask for an explanation. No matter what it was, I was not interested. It could not, and would not make a bit of sense to me so why ask? Though, in retrospect, I wish I had.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Jane’s room chatting about school and boys until Sandy knocked at the door and told us that Jane’s parents were home and that dinner was ready. We followed her to the kitchen. Jane’s two younger brothers arrived soon after on the run. The little one who was probably no more than two, tripped and bumped his head on the chair. He wailed with pain and ran for a comforting hug from Sandy who soothed him on her lap and applied a bandage and a bit of cream to the spot on his head. He cuddled in close to her with both arms flung around her neck until the pain he was feeling subsided. I watched in amazement wondering why he hadn’t run to his mother for comfort rather than the maid.

I now looked at the small table set with plates for five – Sandy, Jane, the two boys, and myself. "Jane", I said, "where are your parents? Are they not going to eat supper as well?"
"Oh no," Jane said. "They always have dinner and breakfast in the dining room. And usually they are both at work at lunch time."

As she spoke she waved her hand toward the door that led into the dining room. The door was partly ajar. Enough for me to see a man and woman seated at a large oak table, set with a silver tea service, steaming dishes, a lovely bronze-colored cloth, a vase of flowers, and two strategically placed lighted candles. The lighting was subdued, but I could see the woman was dressed in a green fitted tweed suit, spike heels, dark nylons, hair pulled back in a formal looking coif and make-up impeccably applied. The man’s lower legs and feet were all that was visible through the doorway, but I could see that he was dressed in razor-creased gray trousers and glistening black alligator shoes.

We commenced eating at our own small table when Jane suddenly turned to Sandy and said in a curt, cutting voice. "Sandy, I want those jeans in the laundry room pressed before seven o’clock tonight." Sandy nodded. "And I want that green shirt laid out as well." It was an odd voice. A voice that I had never heard Jane use before. And it seemed so not right for Jane to ask in such a demanding way. No please, no thank-you. It was a voice that made me feel tense and uncomfortable.

Wishing to separate myself from the tension I was feeling, after supper (oops, I mean Dinner), I asked Sandy if I could help her with the dishes. Sandy said I could if Jane didn’t mind and although I could tell that my offer miffed Jane a bit, I told her I wouldn’t be long and then we could do whatever she wanted to do as soon as Sandy and I finished the dishes.

So Jane went off to another room and I stayed to help Sandy. I liked Sandy right from the start. She turned out to be one of the jolliest, funniest, most lovable person I had ever had the good luck to meet. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat as I helped with the dishes. No dishwasher here. Dishes washed and rinsed in the sink. As I dried cutlery and tossed it in the drawer an angry wail came from the dining room that stunned me to the core. "Sandy, who the hell is tossing my silverware in the drawer as if it were made of tin?" Sandy nudged me in the arm as I was about to fling another knife in the drawer then hurried into the dining room.

I heard her say in a mild tone with obvious remorse, "I’m so sorry, Mrs. Bernine, I wasn’t thinking and rather in a hurry." I heard a sneering reply.

"Well maybe, Sandy, you should pay more attention. It is sure to be a financial hardship for you if you have to replace any of my silver. And tomorrow pay a bit more attention to vacuuming the family room. I have been checking the debris behind the TV and because you are careless it is still there from last Thursday."

I was so embarrassed to have committed such a faux pas. And although I was pleased Sandy had intervened, at the same time I felt sad that she had felt compelled to cover up for me. I finished drying the dishes placing each item as gently as I possibly could on the shelves or in the drawers. (Something I still do, even today).

Now after I returned to Jane’s room, she decided that while I was there we should take in the fair. But the little rich girl only had two dollars and I had no coin at all. So Jane went to talk to her mother. Her mother informed her that nobody gets anything for nothing so the following day we would accompany her to the office and do work in order to make a bit of money. It turned out that Jane’s mom and dad owned and operated a large vitamin supply business. That is why there was such a vitamin collection on their kitchen table. So the next day Jane and I rode in deafening silence with her mom in a flashy velvet-upholstered car that reeked of that new-car smell to her workplace. It was a large building with a curved concrete wall out front that said in large blue letters – BERNINE VITAMINS, INCORP. We ascended to the third floor and were led down a hallway to a mailroom. Here there were boxes of envelopes and stacks of printed flyers extolling the virtues of youth and vitality, the end result of using massive amounts of Bernine vitamins.

We stuffed envelopes and sealed them, applied a company stamp to the upper left corner and a postage stamp to the right. We worked with determined doggedness hoping that we would be able to get our wages and scoot by lunch-time. But at twelve o’clock, Mrs. Bernine brought in two small juices and two egg-salad sandwiches that I expect she bought from a lunch wagon or perhaps there was a cafeteria in the building. She checked Jane’s watch to ensure it was accurate and then sent us across the street to a park for thirty minutes to eat our lunch. Then back to the mailroom and more stuffing and stamping. Eventually she returned at 4:30 and drove us home. There she reached in a bulging wallet and handed us each a crisp five-dollar bill.

Now Jane seemed satisfied. She accepted her five dollars as a reasonable salary for a good bit of work. But not me. My family was very poor but even at that, my parents would often be more generous than they could afford to be when I had my heart set on doing something that was important to me. Already I was tabulating. Probably $2.50 to get in the gate, $.50 each way for bus fare and that would only leave me $1.50 for games, rides, and snacks. How utterly ridiculous. What would be the point of going to the fair, if I couldn’t do anymore than wistfully look around me, too broke to do anything but envy everyone else’s good time?

But we went – Jane and I. And as I suspected, we were so short of cash that within an hour we were too broke to do anything so we left. But that is not the end of this tale.

The next day, Jane left for a mysterious appointment with her mother (doctor, dentist, I have no idea what) so the maid and I and the two young boys stayed home alone. I spent some of that time helping Sandy dust and vacuum the family room with the greatest care taken to make sure nothing was missed. Absolutely nothing. We worked hard and efficiently and in the end allowed ourselves a tea-time break. Something Sandy never had done in the past, but our combined efforts at doing her chores left us feeling entitlement to a break.

During our tea-time discussion, Sandy told me she didn’t have to work Saturday. She told me she wanted to go to the fair but she had no one to go with. So I offered to go with her. I hoped that I could get some money from my an older sister who, it turned out, lived about 40 minutes from Jane’s house. So I called my Sis and was so pleased that she agreed to come over and drop off some spending money for me. Big money, this time. Twenty bucks.

So before Jane came home, Sis dropped off the money and I was ready for a grand outing with Sandy. Now I don’t recall exactly what happened with the business of Jane amidst all this. I just know that she told me to go ahead and go with Sandy and that she would find other things to do. In retrospect it may have been a kind of pouting acceptance accompanied by deep feelings of rejection. I really don’t know. I was just too upbeat about my own good time to be very sensitive or empathetic to Jane’s situation. I think, in retrospect, there was a level of deliberate ungraciousness on my part. I was seeking a bit of revenge for Jane’s inconsiderate demands of Sandy that so closely mirrored her mother’s same lack of consideration.

So Sandy and I went off to the fair on Saturday and Jane, unbeknownst to me, took to her bed and wept. When I came home, she still lay in bed with eyes swollen from weeping. I had no sooner entered her bedroom and was about to seek forgiveness for being so inconsiderate when I heard hard and purposeful stiletto steps approaching the bedroom. And then the fury hit.

"Roberta, I want you to call someone to remove you from this house right now. Within the next hour. You came here under the guise of being a friend to Jane, but you are no friend. You obviously prefer the companionship of the hired help to the companionship of my daughter. It is not your job to assist the maid with her normal routines. If the maid needs help, that is positively none of your business. She works for me and her work is none of your business. You may go to the sitting room at the front door once you call for a ride and wait there."

There were tears spilling down my face now. "Mrs. Bernine," I said, "I’m truly sorry if I upset you and Jane. I truthfully didn’t mean to. My mother taught me that it is rude not to offer to help with dishes and other chores and I thought that rule always applies. I am very sorry."

Mrs. Bernine continued to look at me with obvious distaste. "Roberta," she continued, "if you have anything to say to Jane, be quick about it. I am more than a little anxious to get you out of here."

I turned to Jane. All she said in a muted voice was "Just leave," as she covered her head with her fluffy, satin quilt. Her mother gripped my elbow and steered me aggressively toward the phone in the hallway. I was very grateful when I called my older Sis and she promised to immediately come to my rescue.

But as for me, I felt so sad that my friendship with Jane ended on such a sour note. And I felt so embarrassed that I had been raised in a home that left me with so little polish, so depleted an understanding of manners and protocol that it had all come to this.

Odd, how things like this can affect someone. Even today, you couldn’t give me Sterling Silver cutlery even if you wanted to pay me to take it. I will have none of it.

And yes, there have been other rich and famous encounters in my life, but I’m going to save those stories for another time.


Blogger She Dances in Dragon said...

Wow. What a story.
I feel sorry for Jane. To have so many things, and have so little of real value. And then to have her mother rush you away before Jane could learn that sometimes people are hurtful (whether intentionally or unintentionally); and that they can usually clear things up with a little conversation.
Sorry, Roberta; I don't feel sorry for you at all. You knew how to be happy with who you were and you had family who showed you they cared about you.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Wandering Willow said...

That's an amazing story! I wonder what kind of life Jane has now.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Roberta said...

she dances in dragon and wandering willow, thanks for stopping by. I admire your patience and perserverance in reading such a lengthy tale, but I'm pleased you enjoyed it. Unfortunately, wandering willow, I never encountered Jane or her parents again, or even the maid. I do think of them often, however, and wonder as well what kind of life Jane has now.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Aurora said...

What an excellent story, though a bit sad in some parts. So vividly and well written...

I was feeling a little raw today after driving down the coast and seeing all the oceanfront property with all the fancy cars in the driveway (a far cry from where I am, though I have a respectable, rented roof over my head and a car that is very old but runs). This tale has certainly snapped my perspective back in line.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Roberta said...

Aurora, your thoughts are precious and meaningful, and I am pleased if you found something in this story to move you from 'rawness' to contentment.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

What a wonderful story, brought tears to my eyes.

5:40 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home