It was my mother who found Mrs. Abronson. She was sitting on a folding chair with a parasol over her head. We were at an auction in our village in Vermont near where my parents had recently bought the small Cape Cod style house for a summer place. My mother loved to make friends with anyone who looked like a summer person so my sister and I would have friends. My sister was twenty-one and I was eighteen.
The local kids would probably have jobs and their own friends. Anyway the locals had a simmering prejudice against summer residents. If she didn’t find friends, particularly boyfriends for us, she was afraid we would get bored and want to go back to New Jersey, which was god-awful hot in July.
Mrs. Abronson was dressed like no one I had ever seen. She looked as if she were at a wedding, the mother of the bride or groom. She was wearing a pink silk dress almost to her ankles and white stockings. Her shoes had been dyed pink to match her dress. On her hands were white gloves (maybe she has leprosy, my mother said). Her thick black hair was rolled into two buns over her ears, like earmuffs and her face was sharp and formal with rock-gray eyes above her unharmonious lips. Everyone else at the auction wore very casual clothes, some in shorts or blue jeans and even the older women, like my mother, wore simple summer dresses.
My mother introduced herself and introduced my sister Annie and me as Theo (not my full name, Theodora. Thank God). She and my mother got to talking and by the end of the auction Mrs. Abronson invited my sister and me to come play tennis with her two sons who needed partners. She lived twenty or so miles away.
Because World War Two was still going there was gas rationing. We had taken the bus to Vermont but my father was there now. He had saved up enough stamps to drive up to Vermont and drive us back at the end of the summer.
But that didn’t stop my mother from finding a way to get us places. Almost nothing ever stopped my mother. “Follow me,” she said. We walked down the lane to the main road. Suddenly she rushed out into the road to flag down a truck. She always looked over the truck drivers carefully and if she thought they weren’t rapists or kidnappers or killers (how she thought she could tell was a mystery) she would then ask them to drive us to the village of Dummerston where Mrs. Abronson lived.
When we arrived we found the dirt road, she had described. There was no name sign. We hoped this was the right one. It was long and steep with no other houses, only forests and an occasional hay field. Maybe she even owned all that land. We learned somewhere that she was from a very wealthy Jewish family like the Guggenheims.
The lane seemed endless, hot and dusty. We finally made it to the top about a mile and a half up. There was her house on a pinnacle with a three hundred and sixty-degree view. The house was sprawling on one floor like what we called a California house. When Annie knocked on the door, painted pink like Mrs. Abronson’s dress, the door opened by a Japanese servant with a topknot and dressed in a traditional outfit with bloomer like trousers, a sash and a shirt with buttons on the bias. He was tall and elegant. He bowed and led us into the living room where we were greeted by Mrs. Abronson.
She was again dressed in another fancy outfit, but this time white silk with white stockings and heels. She reached out her naked hand to shake. I looked carefully, no sign of deformed fingers. She didn’t smile but seemed glad from the way she kept her eyes steady on us. Yet she scared me with her stern witch-like face, rock-gray eyes and a forehead full of frown lines. I couldn’t imagine that any man would have found her attractive enough to marry much less go to bed with her enough times to make two sons.
I learned later that Mrs. Abronson’s husband came up only once when she first bought the house. He had walked on a hornet’s nest and never came back.
John and Simon came to meet us from somewhere else in the rambling house. John was my sister’s age and in college like her. Simon was my age, eighteen and going to NYU in the fall. I was headed for the University of Vermont. John had his mother’s lips and coal black hair but Simon had tight brown curls, green eyes and a crooked smile. As we walked toward the tennis court across the putting-green-like lawn we could look down on farms, forests, rivers and villages.
Out on the court we were handed new looking Wilson rackets, we played doubles and my sister and John won. Hot and tired, we were invited in the cool house and the Japanese servant gave us stunning kimonos to wear. He escorted us to the dining room where we sat on pillows at low tables. The odd thing was we were still at war with Japan and most people were suspicious of the Japanese. Anyway it was very rare to see one in New England.
Shinata was his name and he bowed as he passed us something I had never seen, whole-wheat spaghetti with a sprinkling of cheese which tasted lke sawdust. But another course came, which was greens from her garden in back of the house.
It turned out that Mrs. Abronson had made a cement underground storage place where she kept a ton of whole wheat spaghetti in case the war came here. And if they needed to escape even more she had buried a huge tank of gasoline. Black market? The next week we were supposed to play tennis again but Annie and John had other things to do. I took a bus that was running now so thank God Mom wasn’t in the middle of the road flagging down trucks. Back on the court I asked Simon why his mother had a Japanese servant?
“Oh she is very liberal and an iconoclast. She feels people shouldn’t be prejudiced toward anyone, not even your enemies.”
Simon liked to kid around with me and make fun of me, my messy blond hair, my shorts that were not white but blue, my awful tennis playing, but the way he said these things made me laugh. He delivered them with an ironic smile. I told him (which wasn’t true} that his butt was as fat as girls and luckily he laughed.
Nearly a month went by with the same routine and I was slowly becoming a better tennis player. I was about to go home when he said he would walk me down the hill to the bus stop. But wait there is something I’d like to do with you, a joke. Will you go along?”
You see how my mother is cool, unemotional, how she never looses her temper even that time Shinata burnt the garlic bread. I thought of something she’ll get emotional about. Do you want to play along next time you come?”
We’ll see how she reacts to this lie;” We found her in the dining room talking to Shinata.
“Mom, I have something to tell you.”
Theodora and I are getting married.”
She threw a glass off the table smashing it, stamped her feet and screamed, “Absolutely not. No son of mine is marrying a Christian, ever, ever. I will disown you.”
I retreated in horror. I don’t think I had ever seen anyone that angry. I rushed out of the house and Simon followed as I ran down the hill to get the bus, “Wasn’t that something? See, what did I tell you?”
He tried to take my hand. But I was too angry with him and pulled it away. That wasn’t nice to play a joke on her and embarrassing me. He didn’t answer and I didn’t say goodbye as I climbed on the bus, “I’ll see you next week, “he said, “Otherwise, she’ll think it’s true.”
That didn’t seem to make much sense but the next week I was back playing tennis and as if nothing had happened he still joked around. We still were served whole-wheat spaghetti. On the last game of the day he hit a tennis ball over the court fence. It landed in back of the house where her garden was and we went to look for it.
It had landed not far from his mother’s window, which was open and we couldn’t help see and hear what was going on. There was a naked a man on top of a woman. At first it didn’t register who it was. But then we knew it was Shinata with his topknot let lose and his black hair flowing down his back. The woman with her earmuff hair undone was Simon’s mother. Shinata making love to Mrs. Abronson! I put my hand over my mouth and ran with Simon following. I threw myself on a bench next to the court, “Can you believe it? Can you? Can you?” He asked. Silently he walked me down to the bus. “My uptight, cold, impossible mother,” he said, laughing an embarrassed laugh.
I felt most sorry for Simon. It was just an unbelievable incident in my life but it was Simon’s mother!
That was the last I saw of Simon until many years later. I decided to see what happened to him. I drove up the long hill with more bumps and potholes and came to the house that looked the same. When I stepped out Simon was in the yard. He looked really good. His face hadn’t changed much, just a frown line and laugh lines and his hair was flecked with grey. But there was a look of the athlete in his build. He came over to me with a puzzled look on his face, “Hi, Simon.”
“My God, Theodora, I was thinking about you just the other day.” He shook my hand.
“Come sit,” he said. There were two lawn chairs facing the gorgeous view; “I wondered if you still came here in the summers.”
“Yes I do. I thought I would come find out what happened to you.”
“First, want something to drink? A glass of wine?”
“Sure.” But it was only noon; “A little early in the day?”
He grinned, “White or red?”
“Red would be nice;” he disappeared into the house and brought out two Venetian glasses and poured the wine. When I took the glass my hand shook. He saw and put his hand over mine to steady it. I hadn’t blushed in years but I did then; “So tell me what you have been doing over the years,” I asked.
“I went to law school and practiced in New York and played a lot of tennis.”
“Did you marry?”
“Yes, I did, a Jewish girl my mother picked out but divorced her after four years. I don’t like gefilte fish.”
There I was laughing again.
“We have a son who lives in Colorado, owns a Dude Ranch, horses, cook outs, mouth organ music after dinner. Oh and tennis; he teaches if they want. That is just about it. But I want to hear about you.”
“Well, I became engaged to a man after the last time I saw you that I met in college. He was a senior and I a freshman but we married that August. My mother wanted to invite you and your mother to the wedding but we found out from my friend that you were on a trip to Japan.”
“What did your husband do?”
“He was a city planner for Linden, New Jersey. We quickly had two boys, nineteen months apart and both now live in California.”
“Do your parents still come to Vermont?”
“They did until they both died, six years ago stroke and heart attack. And then my husband died two years ago. Lung cancer. I come alone but once in a while my boys and their wives come.”
“How do you pass the time, now that your kids are grown?” He asked me, looking intensely into my face.
“I paint. Mostly Vermont landscapes.”
“I’d like to see them.”
“I’m having a few put in the Londonderry library for the summer. “
“I’ll go.” He poured more wine and we drank slowly; “Do you get lonely?” He asked.
“I haven’t thought about it,” I lied.
“I don’t believe you.” He stared at me again.
I quickly changed the subject, “How about you?”
Simon didn’t answer either, “It’s getting hot. Let’s go in the house.” He reached across my chair and took my hand to lift me up.”
We walked across the carefully cared-for lawn. He opened the door for me, still holding my hand to lead me into the living room. I looked around. It seemed nothing had moved, the Japanese vases, the Turkish rugs, shoji screens, the dining room with a low table and cushions on the floor.
“Your mother?” I asked.
“She and Shinata live together in Japan.”
“But isn’t he a Christian?”
“It doesn’t matter, they’re only lover;” he laughed and so did I.
“I visited them not long ago. They live outside of Tokyo up the side of a mountain with views and their house is very Japanese with grass mats and sliding doors, hanging cloths and pillows and slippers to put on when you enter the house. And I could hear them at night,” he laughed. He put his arm around me, “Now at last, Theodora.” He kept his arm around me as we walked through the house.
“But first some whole-wheat spaghetti.”