My parents moved with their litter to Rockhill Road in the 1960s. The neighborhood was so new that red dirt covered the road and most of the lots remained wooded. An unintentional colony of doctors sprang up: six surgeons, a pathologist, an eye doctor, and a dentist—all within shouting distance. Pill Hill Road quickly became the street moniker.
Many of the families had a passel of offspring. For periodic escape, the neighborhood ladies decided to create a monthly entertainment under the guise of busywork: the sewing club, which included a luncheon followed by an afternoon of earnest gab, with a smidgen of knitting, crocheting, hemming, embroidery, or crewelwork. The group included twelve women–one to host the meeting each month. There were no rules except the admonition to serve a decent spread ornamented by fresh flower arrangements, china, crystal, silver, a hefty dessert, and gallons of coffee. This gathering was not an occasion for finger sandwiches. These ladies loved substantive refreshments at their private parties. The group did not kick out anybody. The only exit was death. Only then did the sewing club usher in a new member from a pool of eager candidates (jolly come lately to the neighborhood).
Each sewing club member had a distinct personality. Mrs. L, our next-door neighbor, was a woman of cool sophistication. While my mother was in thrall to the early American look, Dr. and Mrs. L lived in a contemporary house that Frank Lloyd Wright would have happily plagiarized. One end was long and low, with a series of bedrooms brightened by large glass windows. How did that family sleep in the morning? It was a delightful mystery. The living room-dining room-kitchen end bore all the magnificence of a secular cathedral. A puzzle of dark gray flagstones—exactly like the ones in our church sanctuary—graced the sidewalk and continued into the foyer. The ceilings soared in a wealth of spare diagonals.
The pièce de résistance was the doorbell—a rich departure from our pedestrian front-entrance “ding-DONG.” Comparatively, it was a symphony—actually, the first 16 ringtones of the Westminster chimes. Navigating Mrs. L’s sidewalk was great fun; it put a new spin on the game of “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” That required walking like an Egyptian in a zigzag pattern. I could have stood at Mrs. L’s front door all afternoon and punched her doorbell until it clanged in her head.
Impressionist-like paintings of brilliant florals were all the decorating rage in most homes except Mrs. L’s Grande Maison. The first image that greeted you was the framed brass rubbing of a fourteenth-century knight at the far end of the foyer. Dr. and Mrs. L wandered Great Britain creating art from engraved sepulchral memorials. The most my parents could manage was our yearly trip to North Georgia for Decoration Day at the Hinton United Methodist Church, though the holiday was quite touching in its homespun glory.
Any millennial would rejoice at the sight of Mrs. L’s clean mid-century panache. It sported the look of the Jetsons’ sky-high abode sans Rosie, the rolling automaton maid. I wanted to nap on the sleek, austere couch, sink into the Eames chair, and pop open the Atomic Age hi-fi. Best of all, Mrs. L’s living room could accommodate running room for an Arabian walkout whereas Mom’s offered space only for two steps plus a cartwheel. The paintings were yawning geometric wonders. An expansive wall of windows opened one side. It seemed Mrs. L read several books at one time—voluminous histories and cutting-edge novels that lay partway open on the furniture or carelessly stacked on side tables.
A second-story screened-in porch overlooked our backyard. Years later, Mrs. L said, “Charlie and I used to sit here for hours and watch your father bounce from plant to plant. Who needs TV?” Dr. L’s notion of gardening was to step outside with a pair of clippers and snip a few twigs while the official gardener buzzed behind him as he gestured at this or that shrub. A button-down cotton shirt, tie, cardigan, khakis, and loafers comprised Dr. L’s gardening attire. His primary labor entailed carefully ferrying a small bucket of table scraps to a tiny compost. He resembled a Kappa Alpha brother freshly starched for Rush Week.
I wanted to file adoption papers—a transfer to Dr. and Mrs. L’s spacious, gracious living.
Mrs. L spoke in the soft tones of a refined family from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I suspected she was an heiress of sorts who once had a big-city career, perhaps in New York. I fancied her a closet novelist. Several inches shorter than Mom, she maintained a trim figure, zipping out of the house in her spotless tennis dress and into her pristine gray Mercedes. I fantasized about stowing away in the leather backseat and riding far, far away. Mrs. L was all subtlety in her quiet designer clothes. Nobody in her household wore homemade dresses. Mrs. L’s only pretense to needle-and-thread activity was stitching a stray button on a shirt while she absorbed the sewing club’s gossip.
Unbeknownst to my mother, my brother Bud created a special trophy: The Pill Hill Road Sewing Club Flying Tongue Award. Once a year, he would eavesdrop long enough to select a winner. Mom always placed in the top three. Mrs. L? Dead last.
The sewing club’s finest fête involved the kitchen shower—from beaten biscuits and delicate ham slices to lemon squares. Brides celebrated the frivolity, friendship, and greatest gift haul of their lives. Would a sewing club member bestow one lonesome Revere Ware pot? Never. Many a bride walked away with several complete settings in her “everyday” or “medium” china.
Kitchen showers were serious business. Lingerie showers did not exist. In fact, I never heard of a lingerie shower until I attended such a party—and it was outside the state long after college graduation. I found it hilarious; I pictured Nannie indignantly raising an eyebrow at thong underwear and intoning, “Now why would a young lady wear a questionable piece of nylon that cuts her down there when it’s all a body can do to tolerate a girdle?”
The ladies of the sewing club were quite clever. They engineered the ultimate collective gift: “the kitchen bride.” She consisted of a mop (stringy hair), a stick torso, rolling-pin shoulders, an apron draped to fill out her figure, oven-mitt arms and hands, and a bouquet of measuring spoons and tea towels. Footless and fancy-free, she propped up in a scrub bucket. Her merry visage was a paper plate with sparkly eyes fringed with thick lashes, the slight suggestion of a turned-up nose, rosy cheeks, slightly pursed lips with upturned corners, and dimples. If the artist felt daring, she added a beauty mark.
The kitchen shower confused one of my friends, a post-doc scholar from India. On receiving her invitation, she called me, worried about breaching etiquette. She dreaded phoning the hostess to RSVP.
“I fear I must regret.”
“No worries,” I said, thinking she was self-conscious about being a vegetarian in the pork-worshiping South. “The ladies include fruits and light salads in the refreshments.”
“No, that’s not it,” she said slowly. I sensed her embarrassment. “I don’t own a blue-and-white sari, and I’m not sure I can find one in time.”
Perplexed, I urged, “You have a rainbow of lovely saris. Wear the one you like.”
“But I do not want to offend your mother’s friends,” she protested. “The invitation stipulated ‘colors: blue and white.’ I like to follow the local customs.”
Lost in translation: Catherine’s kitchen theme is blue and white.