Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Visit, 1950, Donna Kirk

My mother didn’t approve; I could tell right away. It was early Saturday morning and we were eating breakfast at our tiny kitchen table when the front doorbell rang, and rang again insistently. I followed Mom to the door. Pat Ross burst into our foyer, her voice breathless, her expression wild, and in obvious need of comfort. This puzzled me. Pat was married to Mother’s second cousin Derrick, but Mother was not the comforting type. She didn’t approve of the Rosses. They were spontaneous, laughed out loud and never sat up straight on chairs or sofas. The Rosses were the kind of “elbows on the table” people I would have liked if not for my mother’s authoritative ideas about what was orderly and proper.
Mother closed the front door, resigned to the reality that company was here and would be staying for a while at least. Pat threw her luxurious fur coat across the landing at the bottom of the stairs, where it lay like a huge pelt. Heavens! Pat was wearing her nightgown, a silky, clinging, hanging thing, which revealed nipples and hinted at her dark pubic triangle. My mother raced up the stairs, slipping on the supine animal, and returned with her tattletale grey bathrobe which she forced on our guest. Whatever Pat had come for she would now have great difficulty chipping through the icicle that had become my mother.
Mother ushered me away upstairs as Pat sat on her coat and burst into loud sobs, sniffing (something my mother hated) and wiping at her nose with one hand while making a vain attempt to clutch the gaping robe with the other. Dad, unaccustomed to Saturday distractions from his paper, emerged from the kitchen, butler’s door flapping behind him, his glasses balanced on the tip of his nose. After a glimpse of the scene, he did an abrupt one-eighty to the kitchen, where he snapped on the radio to shield himself from the intrusion.
From my post at the top of the landing I sensed my mother’s quandary about where to lead her guest. Surely the living room was out of the question. I had never seen pajama clad people in our living room, except for Christmas and Easter morning, and then it was just family. Luckily for me, that left the dining room, where voices would drift clearly up the staircase.
“Coffee, Pat?” my mother mustered, as she ushered her guest to a dining room chair. “Toast?” Pat didn’t want anything but that did not stop Mother from striding to the kitchen anyway. I could only imagine what she and Dad said to each other. It seemed like a long time before Mother emerged with coffee, toast, jam, butter and napkins, all arranged beautifully on her everyday tray. Mother was seated pouring coffee when the doorbell sounded another double insistent ring. Pat leapt from her chair.
“That’s Derrick! I know it!” she cried.
“Ed!” mother shouted over the radio, “Answer the front door!”
She needed back up, knowing that this second caller could only be Pat’s husband. I watched Dad emerge once again, make his way to the front door ready to do business, glasses pushed to the top of his head.
“Is Pat here?” asked Derrick the second the door opened. I thought surely he’d noticed their family car in our driveway. Without speaking, Dad removed his glasses and placed them, folded, in his shirt pocket while he ushered Derrick through the foyer, past the sprawling coat to the entrance of the dining room.
Derrick’s attire was the opposite of his wife’s. He wore a rumpled black suit with shiny panels on the jacket front. His bow tie hung loose and dangled at uneven angles down his chest. The white pleated shirt gaped open where it was missing several buttons.
Realizing that I would never be noticed, I descended to a more advantageous position halfway down the staircase. Derrick rushed towards his wife, who had risen to her feet and joined the crowd in the hallway. In all my eight years I’d never witnessed anything like the scene before me.
“Whose bathrobe have you got on?” he asked stupidly, staring at Pat. “What are you thinking?”
I assumed he was referring to her attire. My mother securely fastened the belt of the bathrobe around Pat’s waist.
“What was I thinking? How could you?” Pat blurted.
Funny, I thought, she’s the one dressed in the nightgown. Dad, glasses in hand once again, glanced wistfully at the kitchen and then back to the business at hand. Mother was counting on him to take control of this situation.
Unfortunately, Dad had left the kitchen door open, with the radio blaring, but didn’t dare descend further. My position midway down the stairs would just have to do. I tucked my skirt around my knees, something young ladies should always do when seated, and with my chin resting in my hands, readied myself for a glimpse of the adult world with all its mysteries and complexities.
Dad, ever in command, ushered everyone to a place around the dining room table while Mother returned to the kitchen for more coffee cups, toast and fixings, silencing the radio during the process. It was another eternity before she returned with the extra provisions. All the while Pat sobbed into the tissues Dad offered her, and her husband mumbled things I couldn’t hear, to no one in particular.
Everyone sat in silence as Mother poured coffee, asking politely what condiments each preferred. No one dared refuse. Toast, butter and jam were passed around. Everyone ate and drank without uttering a word. The only sound was the Rosses slurping their coffee, something both Mom and Dad hated. I was impatient for this superficiality to end so the good stuff could begin.
The petit dejunier finally over, Dad rose and went to the French doors connecting our dining room to the front hall. Glancing up the stairs, and with great ceremony, he closed the doors with a loud click, leaving me to watch the pantomime from my vantage point.
I could see Pat Ross crying, her expression angry as she spoke and gestured at her husband. His back was facing me but I could see that he held his head in his hands. My parents took turns uttering words that would never be known to me.
In no time chairs were pushed back. The French doors opened. My parents and the Rosses spilled out into the foyer. Derrick attempted to help his wife with her coat, which she snatched out of his hands and threw around her shoulders, its glossy elegance mocking mother’s dingy bathrobe.
Nothing more was said. My parents showed the Rosses to the front door and slowly closed it after they went out. I heard the car doors close, the engine start and the Rosses drove away up the street. Dad, his glasses perched once again at the end of his nose, headed for the kitchen to resume his Saturday morning routine with mother in tow.
My mother was never reunited with her bathrobe, and come to think of it, I never saw the Rosses together again either.

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