When there was no company, we still ate dinners in the dining room, but occasionally some levity broke the quiet formalities. Over the years, the cooks and maids were not always the same, and with each personality came different experiences.
We had a cook named Jessie whose claim to fame was that she liked to entertain us during dinner. She would emerge during the meal to serenade us with her harmonica. She was not a particularly gifted player, but made up for this with her utter enthusiasm for the activity. For whatever reason, my father saw these moments as entirely entertaining and funny, and we all loved it when she did it. I have no doubt that it had not been my father’s idea, but Jessie’s alone. Surely she saw how silly the scene was- the family in that outrageously fancy room, tapping their feet to her delighted delivery of her bluesy riffs, stomping her foot in self-accompaniment and dancing around us as she did. It was a welcome relief from what felt to be a stilted and somber time of day for the most part. We all loved Jessie, as we came to love nearly all those who came and went from our household. Apparently Jessie loved us too, because after leaving us at some point, she returned a good number of years later to work again for a while, bringing with her the old harmonica and dinnertime repertoire.
There were others too, with outsized stories. Once, one of the the boat captains and his wife, got into a heated argument aboard the Feliz Ano back in Florida. It was the middle of the night, and in fear for her life, the wife jumped overboard and proceeded to swim across Lake Worth with not a stitch on. At some point later that night, my parents were called by the police department to come and pick her up from the police station. The captain was a drinker and the poor wife surely suffered. For years, he drove us to school every morning, probably hung over, as far as we kids could tell. He was a rough looking man, a dead ringer for Earnest Hemingway with a beard only half grown in. It was obvious to us that he didn’t much like children, as he used few words while he drove us every morning. He and his wife didn’t last long on the boat after the Lake Worth debacle, at which point we kids went to school by car pool.
Then there was Inez, one of the cooks, a stocky middle aged woman who took offense at something the maid Virginia had said, and proceeded to chase Virginia all over the house, up and down the spiral staircase, through the living room and Florida room and back through dining room and kitchen again with a butcher knife before she was finally subdued and given her marching papers. Inez was a mean and cantankerous soul, with a face to match, while Virginia was as beautiful and lovely as Inez was unpleasant. We children always thought it might have been a fit of jealousy that sent Inez over the edge, but none of us kids ever knew for sure. We were just glad to see her go, and glad too, that Virginia was still with us, unhurt.
After Inez came Sonja, a Finnish woman who brought along her daughter, Jennie. While she cooked for us, Jennie, who was all of five years old when they came, took a liking to our father. After dinner, she would sidle past the kitchen door and clamber into my father’s lap to snuggle, calling him “Daddy” and using her best baby talk voice. Our father was charmed by the activity, while Debbie and I were simply amazed by her gutsiness. After all, neither one of us had ever done that ourselves! It was Carolyn who took great offense as the baby of the group, and made sure to let Jenny know on no uncertain terms that he was her father, not Jennie’s. After all, Carolyn was Jennie’s age, and felt her own special place with our father was being threatened.
Meanwhile, Sonja had the distinction of being the least talented cook we’d ever had. Her Finnish sweet bread with cardamom was divine, but just about everything else that came from her kitchen was less than wonderful. I imagine she managed to stay as long as she did because of Jennie, and my parents felt some responsibility for them. Sonja’s most famous dish was a dessert called “Floating Island”, which none of us had heard of before. The first time she sent it out to us at dinner, it was introduced with great fanfare by that name as a specialty of hers. We were led to believe that what we were about to experience would be extraordinary. And extraordinary it was. The dessert arrived in individual bowls, a sea of what looked like egg yolk with its island of what looked like uncooked meringue in the center. It was pretty to behold, a bit of artwork in a bowl, but as we soon learned, the best part of this dessert was the name. The soup of egg yolk was very much a soup of egg yolk, with a whipped egg white island that tasted not much different from simple beaten egg white. Somehow, the components of sugar and vanilla or perhaps lemon zest that might have made it more palatable were sorely lacking in strength, leaving the diners with the queasy feeling that they were consuming raw eggs with nothing much more to disguise them. None of us, my parents included, had the nerve to tell her that the dessert of which she was so proud was terrible in equal measure. We thanked her for it after dinner, and from then on, every few weeks, the dreaded dessert would reappear at the table, followed by general quiet mirth and subsequent comic attempts to eat it all up. The dish became a family legend, years after Sonja and Jenny had gone, whenever some food was deemed really bad, someone would invoke the “floating island” story.
Roseanne, one of the maids, was with us many years past the time she should have retired. She took a special interest in our pekingese Pitapat. As our dear dog reached her dotage, so did Roseanne. It was sweet to see Roseanne preparing scrambled eggs and boiled chicken for the dog, no ordinary dog food would do. It was a sight to behold, the dog no longer had her vision, her hearing or her teeth, being fussed over by one so devotedly similar both in countenance and in situation. Roseanne was no nonsense with us, but with Pitapat, she was all love and sweetness.
When the poor dog died, Roseanne was beside herself with grief and didn’t last much longer with us, as her source of love and comfort had gone.
With our parents and even Greg, these people were there to do a job. They lived with us, but that was all. Their lives were only relevant to the extent to which they were able to do their work and be pleasant to us about it. For us kids, they were an addition to the mixture of grownups that, more often than not, had a very positive side. These were witnesses to what went on. Their position in the household prevented them from expressing an opinion, but there was a kind of unspoken communication between us children and them. Thinking about it now, it makes sense. They were as powerless as we children were. They did as they were told, as we did too. At times of strife in the household, as with rescues from the table with a glass of unfinished milk, so there might be an sympathetic glance or an extra cookie doled out from the kitchen on a hard day. They could hear it if there was someone yelling from the kitchen and were privy to untold conversations both pleasant and unpleasant. While they served us, they moved barely noticed from room to room doing their chores while our lives went on undisturbed by their presence. They were veritable flies on the wall, and thinking back on it from here, the fact leaves me alternately horrified and embarrassed but wishing I knew where I might find any one of them again, to get a fuller truth of how it was from their perspectives.