My father named the Florida house “Feliz Ano”, and had the two words made of hammered wrought iron in a delicate cursive which emblazoned the arch above the outer front door for all visitors to see as they passed beneath and into the enclosed garden beyond. The house was constructed in a classic old Florida style, Spanish in flavor, with red barrel tile roof and its main outer walls made of blocks cut from solid coral rock. The name Feliz Ano, Spanish for “Happy New Year”, was certainly suitable for such a structure, but the reason for the name went beyond this. My mother’s birthday was December 31st, New Year’s eve, and no doubt, it was a nod to her and perhaps even to their honeymoon in Mexico which surely was fresh in his memory when he bought the home. Beyond this, knowing my father’s enjoyment of bravado and his enthusiastic intensity in moments of good cheer, no doubt, the name connoted his love of life, an attitude he embraced whole heartedly when and where it was that he had the opportunity. He also gave his yachts the name Feliz Ano. Over the years, each successive vessel had its stern repainted in gold letters with the happy moniker.
There was even a large set of glassware in which each glass had been hand enameled with the words Feliz Ano in gold under a colorful nautical flag. Every glass had a beautiful gilded rim which increased the effect of preciousness, and the complete set included at least twenty four for each variety of glass. There were tumblers for every purpose- highball, old fashioned, juice, and tiny shot glasses. Half of the set was on the boat for entertaining purposes there. The other half resided inside the front pantry closet and was taken out for parties for our guests to enjoy. The set sat on a shelf above the cookies, but we children were strictly forbidden to use them. I remember going in there occasionally to get a raspberry straw or a sugar wafer and admiring them whenever I did.
The glasses and many others crystal glasses of various designs came out of the closets for New Years eve- a big day at our house. There was often a well attended celebration, and understandably so. It was, after all, my mother’s birthday, and everyone else’s big day to party, both at the same time. On those occasions, we children were sent upstairs with Greg for the duration because this sort of celebration was for grownups only, and our bedtimes were strictly enforced. Eventually, as I got older, I was permitted to attend for a time, until finally in my mid-teens, I was allowed to fully participate in the festivities.
I was seventeen at the time, and wearing a dress my mother surely had bought and approved of for the party. When I was a few years younger, my mother had favored party dresses that I felt were childish for my age, and I was forced to wear them, feeling like an advertisement for big babies. I’d had a clear notion that I was being infantilized, but my mother’s opinion was the final word, and she made sure I knew who it was that knew best. She would not tolerate or consider any differing opinion, no matter how I might beg, in fact, it would quickly raise her irritation levels and generally speaking, I dared not express an opposing opinion beyond a weak and essentially shame filled request. At the times I felt so desperate as to speak up, a sinking feeling took shape immediately, in that expressing my hopes for a different dress was summarily met with a comment which let me know that my opinion was ridiculous and not worthy of consideration. I was a child, she would point out, and she, a woman of the world. To some extent, I knew she was right.
I have no clear memory of the dress I wore on this particular night exactly, but I have no doubt it was very different- and signaled a shift in my mother’s view of me. It was an overtly sexy evening dress, in a fabric and design clearly befitting a daughter of elevated circumstance. I vaguely recall the trip to the seamstress to make it closely fit my young form. At the time of purchase, I was looking forward to wearing it. I was excited to be permitted finally, to wear something that my teenage hormonal mind saw as age appropriate. It was many years later that I finally understood my mother’s preoccupation with sex appeal, but at the time, it was just a beautiful dress that made me look very grown up.
It was on one of these New Years events that I found myself in the front entryway by the massive circular staircase, which had been cleared for dancing. The live band had already started up and the hors d’oevres and drinks were circulating. My mother’s close friends at the time had brought with them a nephew who had, by some private but obvious and gleeful agreement been earmarked for my evening’s companion. I’d had no advance warning of this, but I could not miss the knowing smiles my mother exchanged with her friend’s as I was introduced to him, a youngish man, but solidly in his thirties and too many years older than myself. Clearly, by my mother’s assessment, he was a good choice, likely having an income which she found suitable for her daughter. Tonight she and her friend would play matchmaker, and wealth or potential wealth was the thing that passed my mother’s perennial litmus test. Nothing else mattered- and my feelings on the subject were irrelevant. She and her friend had already decided for me. My father was gone by then. No doubt if he had been present this choice could never have been made.
And so we were introduced. The man was slightly portly, with a leering expression which made him generally unappealing at least at first glance. He wore an expensive looking suit, and his black hair was slicked back in a style which was old fashioned for the 1971. No doubt, he had immersed himself in a whole bottle of after shave before his arrival, and the smell was overwhelming and unpleasant. While we stood, he spoke only of himself, his means and his business acumen, and to a seventeen year old like me, his egotistical behavior was utterly unattractive. I recall at some point making a privately plaintive look toward my mother, which was answered just as silently with a look of admonishment and a nod in his direction which said it all- “You are responsible for his entertainment. Stay with him.” And so I did.
The first dance for us was at a slow tempo, and I found myself in his ams trying to make small talk while his hand at my back wandered lower and lower as we went. I remember having to move his hand back in place each time it slipped downward landing squarely on my buttocks. And each time he did it, he became more repulsive. As the night wore on, he pressed himself into me more and more boldly. I was beside myself with a strange combination of both revulsion and boredom. He was a toad, an old fashioned, rude and self centered creature, who left me feeling icky and uncomfortable, but I was an obedient girl by nature, at least when it came to my mother and her wishes. It was worse to buck her and face those consequences. I knew that if I took her aside and told her what was happening, she would only scold me for being unable to handle it myself- that this was her friend’s nephew, and I should just deal with it. Boys would be boys. No rescue or righteous indignation on behalf of her virginal daughter would be forthcoming. It would always be my fault. I was weak. I was timid. I was too nice. I was not worldly or self-possessed and I surely ought to be able to deal with this myself. And so I did, grabbing his wrist and moving his hand back to my waist, wordlessly and with no other reaction. It was the only thing I could do- at least it was the only thing I knew to do at the time.
Eventually, around one or two, the party wound down and our guests, one by one, gathered their things and left. My mother’s friend went out the door with her husband and the young scion, and I never saw him again.
My mother with expectant smile asked me how I’d liked the guy and I shrugged. She gave me an annoyed look and commented that I was too fussy. In her opinion, she scolded, he was a good catch, and she told me I should be more open minded. It was better to be rich with someone like him than be with someone handsomer and have no money.
I went to my room just happy for it to be over. I kicked off my heels. I took off the dress, and returned to myself.