It’s interesting to be nostalgic for an era that wasn’t mine. Working to clear out my dear departed mother-in-law Sol’s house of the remains of her day makes me wonder what it must have been like to live like Sol in the 1940s and '50s
I met her in 1982, one of the more starkly frightening meets of my life. Jacques and I had been dating seriously for close to a year and were talking about a future together. But I had not yet met his mother, who lived most of the year in Madrid, Spain. Meeting the mother is always a big deal, but this took on added stress as “a few of his aunts” would be joining us.
I remember knowing that we were gong to see her for lunch at one of her favorite restaurants in New York City. What I don’t remember is whether Jacques had told me ahead of time that he was gong to drop me off and leave me there alone.
Regardless, he walked me into the Upper West Side’s Éclair and there were his mother, his Aunt Greta, Aunt Vera, Aunt Helen, and Aunt Pearl – five very impressive matriarchs of the family, each uniquely cosmopolitan and speaking a variety of languages to each other. They were truly intimidating to this girl from Ohio.
Aunt Greta broke ranks first, turning to me to speak in English and to welcome me to the table. With that simple welcome expressed, Jacques left me quickly and abruptly to my lunch with the stylish ladies.
I could tell at that luncheon that Sol held a unique role with the aunts and sisters-in-law. She sparked when she spoke with very expressive hands and facial features. Her laugh was infectious and she used it a lot at that time.
But ask the wrong question, or share a difficult memory and Sol would quickly shift from happy to sad or angry. All of her emotions were right there on the surface, ready to be triggered by memories. If one would mention an evening with a favorite, now departed, relative the tears would flow.
“Oh, yoi, oy, oy, que muñeco. I miss him so. He was a doll,” she’d say, and the crying would pick up steam until one of the Aunts would mention a different shared event, and the laughter would return.
Of course, I was the one who caused the anger to flare that day. My Italian was stronger than my Spanish at that time, so when I wanted to ask how many years she had lived in Madrid, I replaced the Spanish word for years – año – with the Italian – anno – which is a part of the human anatomy one should not ask of a future mother-in-law how many she had.
Her eyes flashed and she looked at me with a mixture of horror and alarm, a signature look of hers, until one of the multilingual aunts broke into laughter at my misuse of the two languages.
But that was then. It now has been more than thirty years since that lunch with the ladies, and of that group, only two remain. Sol left just this year at the age of 97 – that quick laugh and expressive personality leaving a few years before she did.
As we clean out her belongings, her things, her collections and treasures, we are uncovering so much more of this woman we loved.
She enjoyed her parties – the sheer number of ashtrays, games, decks of cards, linens, and glassware that occupy drawers and cupboards speak of multiple gatherings of family and friends.
The china, silver and serving pieces tell stories of the diners who were served at the long table in the salon.
The hats and clothes with beautiful accessories of bags, gloves, lighters, and lipsticks are signs of a woman who loved dressing up and going out on the town at a time when style trumped all.
I would love to snap my fingers and just for one night, go back to the 1950s with Sol. We would have our hair done together, dress in our best and then go to a classic nightclub featuring a big band of the time. We would sip our martinis, light up and pretend to smoke while laughing gaily at the excitement of being out where life was always exciting, lively, and happy.