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New York Times Home & Garden Columnist reminisces about Project Talent

IN the late 1950s, I and my junior-high classmates in Bangor, Me., took a nationwide test called Project Talent. On the last page, we were asked to list our family’s income. Because my family never talked about money (something strictly forbidden by our bible, written by Emily Post), I was ignorant of a specific sum. “I checked the highest,” I reported at the dinner table.

“You what?” my father exclaimed.

“Ah,” my mother sighed.

No wonder I answered that way.

From the moment I was born, I possessed engraved calling cards, starched organdy pinafores, a silver cup with my initials and a hallmarked porringer for my Cream of Wheat. I lived in a house filled with elaborate candelabra and old paintings.

And thanks to the first edition of Emily Post, I knew how to behave in a box at the opera, how to speak to servants and how to give a ball for 200 of my closest friends. I also knew that a butler should never wear a flower in his lapel.

My mother, who had grown up with cooks and nursemaids, instilled in me an appreciation for the glories of our house, as well: the porch’s Ionic columns that were rescued from a Bullfinch mansion, the clapboards that were painted chrysanthemum yellow to match a Japanese tureen.

Inside, too, a Brahmin idiosyncrasy ruled, with form always triumphing over function. Closets were boarded over to make more wall space for gloomy portraits, leaving hardly a curlicue of ornate wallpaper between the picture frames. The bathroom’s bureau drawer, black-lacquered and stenciled with Chinese peasants scrubbing clothes on the banks of the Yangtze, opened only a sliver before it hit the tub.

Such patrician taste was no fun for a child. Yes, I wore a string of real, not cultured, pearls, but what I most coveted were plastic pop beads. For my 10th birthday I pleaded with my grandfather for a Mickey Mouse watch. He gave me a diamond one instead.

But our fancy-pants life masked a tattered truth. Our house was in fact a modest two-family, and the pretentious columns in the front contradicted the cat’s cradle of clotheslines in the back. It was a house my mother’s father had built for his two spinster sisters before they found husbands late in life. My parents, when they were first married, moved in temporarily. Sixty years later, my widowed mother was still living there.

My mother’s parents paid the college tuition for me and my younger sister, the rent for the houses we sometimes stayed in on the shore and most of our baubles as well. My mother sported my grandmother’s hand-me-down jewelry and furs, and attended parties in French clothes that were rescued from a Park Avenue friend who was just about to give them to her maid.

Our “stately homes” aspiration was less shabby chic than shabby genteel. Though there was no shower, no dishwasher, no dryer, not a single modern convenience, we owned and used oyster forks and consommé spoons and finger bowls.

Our rugs had holes in them, but they were Persian. Our mirrors were so pitted and blackened you could barely see yourself, but they were 18th century. The chairs displayed lumpy horsehair upholstery and splintered arms, but they were Chippendale. “Museum quality” was the label my mother awarded to this chipped plate, or to that rickety table.

Why wasn’t I suspicious about the lack of comfort? Because when the subject of, say, a second bathroom arose, my mother would protest: “We don’t want that. Too ostentatious, too bourgeois.”

I believed everything she said: that our house was elegant, that we were privileged, that we were rich but secretly so. So strong was the power of my mother’s suggestion that I didn’t even see the sagging floorboards, the chipped wood, the tarred-over yard, the weeds in the back or the sinking garage that was uninhabitable for the ancient Chevy.

Even our neighbors were fooled.

When my first novel came out in 1997, before a reading at the Borders in the Bangor Mall, the bookseller handed me a scrawled note on a scrap of paper. “Some man dropped this off,” she said. “He asked me to give it to you.”

“Mameve,” it read in part, “you don’t know me but I used to be your paperboy when you lived in the big yellow house at the top of our street. I lived at the bottom of the street. I always liked your family because they were very nice to me, much nicer than most even though I was a bad paperboy. My sister Judy used to be your friend. She planned to come to see you at the bookstore but she got scared because of the class difference. … She’s had a hard life. But if you ever want to talk to your old friend, here’s her phone number.” He signed the note, “Thanks, Joseph.”

“Don’t call,” warned the bookseller, who had sneaked a peek at the note and thought he wanted money.

I called.

Judy had indeed lived at the bottom of my street with her large French Canadian family. We walked to school together, and she sometimes came for lunch. We’d make peanut butter sandwiches, then climb the stairs to my attic bedroom and play dress-up in my grandmother’s old gowns and velvet hats. We’d clip on earrings, layer beads and chains around our necks, slide on white gloves and wreaths of marabou feathers and waltz around my four-poster, princesses at the ball.

I was never invited inside Judy’s house, which looked like a shack, ramshackle and listing to one side. Old tires and junk filled the yard; the structure seemed far too small to contain all the children in the family. (Were there 8 or 10?) I kept picturing the little old lady who lived in a shoe, though the illustrations in the book made that shoe look much more desirable than Judy’s house.

Once, when she’d forgotten a notebook and had to go to her room to fetch it, she asked me to wait outside. I followed her in. I don’t remember much: a dark hall, peeling paint and a funny musty smell, which I assumed, in all my spoiled arrogance, was the smell of being poor.

By sixth grade, Judy had developed breasts, which I longed for, and pimples, which I didn’t. Soon there were no princess games, no more sandwiches in my kitchen. The minute she was of legal age, she dropped out of school and out of my life.

“It’s you,” she repeated over and over when I telephoned. “You’re so famous and you’re speaking to me!”

“Stop it,” I said.

She talked about how our lives had gone in such different directions. She talked about our walks to school. She told me she was struggling.

I said I hoped things would get better. I promised to send her a book.

“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “Will you sign it to me personally?”

“Of course.”

We began to say goodbye.

“I’ll never forget you,” she said, “and your beautiful big house.”

Eye of the beholder. Two years after that conversation, I learned the truth about my beautiful big house.

A few weeks before my mother died, she lifted her head from her pillow. “Do you remember that test you took in junior high?” she asked.

“Project Talent?” I supplied.

“That was our triumph.”

“What do you mean?”

“Our plan worked,” she said. “We pulled it off.”

“Your plan…?”

“Remember all those things we didn’t have, dishwashers and clothes dryers and showers…”

“Yes, the stuff that was too nouveau riche, too bourgeois,” I said, smiling. “The stuff we were too good for.”

“Your father and I decided to tell you children it was our choice not to have them — and you believed us.” She sighed. “But the truth was we couldn’t afford them.”

I thought of my diamond watches and good pearls and dancing lessons and college education and Judy no more than 10 houses away at the bottom of the street.

“We were poor?” I asked, stunned.

My mother nodded. “Poor as mice.” She propped herself up on one frail elbow. “And I hated our house.”

I sank into my chair. Contrary to all evidence, for more than four decades of my life, I had believed her. “Intelligent and observant” reported my junior-high teachers, and yet I had catapulted our family income into the stratosphere.

The difference between Judy and me: she was poor and knew it; I was poor and thought I was rich.

Mameve Medwed has written five novels, including, most recently, “Of Men and Their Mothers.”

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From: New York Times Home & Garden | Read Original Article