Friday, June 27, 2014

Nice to meet you...

I met my father's mistress when I was 15.

I usually just let that sit there for a minute in a conversation. It's always good for a bit of uncomfortable silence. And it gives me a chance to size people up by their reaction. The most common one is disbelief. After all you know who my mother is, why in the world would my father have a mistress? Then there are people who cannot believe he introduced me to her. And then there are those who make an off color or bad joke out of it. And finally there are those that let the silence linger waiting for the story. The jokers and the waiters are the ones I usually keep as friends.

I remember everything about the day. A girlfriend from school and I were working on a report and there was an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art we wanted to include. And to be perfectly honest we wanted an excuse to spend the day in the city by ourselves. Getting permission would be tricky. Not for me, for Anna. After all my mother had been living on her own since she was 16 and, as the neighborhood mothers said, she was European and had very different ideas on how to raise children. Basically she thought that Americans babied their children and because of that limited their life experiences making boring adults. You can imagine how this theory was met.

Though she had convinced Anna's mother that we would be perfectly safe taking the train in to the city by ourselves, visiting the museum, having lunch and doing some shopping before coming home. I say convinced but she probably intimidated Anna's mother more than convinced her. My mother was Bulgarian. She was very direct. I can just imagine her telling Anna's mother, "The girls will be fine. You worry too much. It's bad for your face." And that would be that. But just to be sure Anna spent the night at our house so her mother couldn't change her mind at the last minute.

We spent the night before picking out just the right outfits. We wanted to look very grown up. I remember my mother looking in on our choices and giving her feedback. "Change the shoes." But we loved the shoes! They made the whole outfit! "They are beautiful shoes.You have wonderful taste. But those are riding and sitting shoes. You need walking shoes."

We stuck to our guns and did not change the shoes.

She had been right. She usually was.

We went to the museum first. Taking notes on the pieces we had gone to see. Then we explored the rest of exhibits making comments we thought were very mature and educated but were really just parroted back pieces from our books. Then we turned the corner to the photography exhibit. And there was my mother. "Is that?" "Yes, it is. We have a smaller copy at home. I didn't realize this was here." And I hadn't. If I had known it was on loan from the museum in Paris where it usually resided I would have made sure Anna and I skipped this room. It's not that I wasn't used to seeing pictures of my mother like this, but this picture was not just her, but my brother and me as well. I was 5 and my brother 3. And did I mention we are all naked? It's a beautiful picture. My mother looks as stunning in it as she does in any of the hundreds of pictures of her you can find. My brother and I look adorable, I will admit. But at 15 it's not what you want people to see.

"She's gorgeous."

"Yes she is. Come on, let's go to lunch." I wasn't embarrassed by the picture. Not really. But it always seemed like bragging to me when people wanted to talk about her. She had graced magazine covers from the time she was 15. Leaving Bulgaria at 16 to live in Paris and then London. Finally coming to New York City at 18 for Fashion Week where she met my father. He was 26 at the time. And he fell in love with her instantly. When people would ask about the age difference he would say, "She was bothered at first, but I matured over the next few years and caught up to her."

They married when she was 20 and she had me at 22. Which became her next defining career moment. Not just motherhood, which she threw herself in to completely, if not conventionally, but in the discovery that no one made maternity clothing for adults. That's how she described it. "Big lacy collars and floppy bows. Why do they believe I should want to dress like a baby just because I am carrying one?" And so she began designing maternity clothing. And then branching out from there. Magazine articles called her the "Style Momven" My father had to explain that they were making a play on maven. Puns do not translate well. But the styles did. She was very successful. It helped that she could model her own lines at the beginning and people made that leap that they do, "If I wear this I will look like her!" Well maybe not, but at least you will look like an adult not a very large baby.

I had picked the restaurant for lunch. It was one my father had taken me to the summer before. I loved it. You could sit outside and watch everyone walking by on the street while you ate. It reminded me of the cafes in Paris my mother would take us to when we visited. I felt every inch the daughter of a European while eating there. After we were seated and had ordered I excused myself to use the restroom. And there in the very back of the restaurant was my father. "Dad! What a surprise!"

And he did look surprised, but then why wouldn't he? I am sure he had forgotten, or might not have even known, that I would be in the city that day. "Anna and I have a table outside, did you want to come sit with us?"

He gestured to the place across from him, "I'm sorry, Syd, but I'm here on a business lunch."

"Oh, of course, I will see you tonight then." and I leaned over to kiss his cheek before leaving.

"Excuse me?"

I turned and there was a young blond woman standing by the table watching my father and me.

"Miss Harris, this is my daughter Sydney. Sydney, this is Miss Harris. Miss Harris works with James Osterhouse."

I shook her hand, we did the nice to meet yous, I excused myself and apologized for interrupting their meeting and went back to my day in the city with Anna.

That night when I walked in the front door, carrying those stylish shoes and nursing some serious blisters, my father was already home. He said his last meeting finished early and seeing me at lunch made him homesick in the middle of the day. It was very sweet. I smiled at him and turned to see my mother watching us both very closely.

Later that evening my mother asked me if I had seen anything unusual that day. I told her that in fact I had. And I told her about the photograph.

Ten years later my brother and I were standing outside of the funeral home. A blond woman walked over to us and shook my hand. "I don't know if you remember me, we only met once." And then the day in the city came back to me. "Oh yes, you worked with my father. Miss..."

"Harris. But you can call me..."

"You cannot be here. I will not have it."

My mother had her hand on Miss Harris' shoulder, pulling her away from me and my brother. "I will not have it. You will leave now."

"I wanted to give my condolences. I just..."

"You will leave!"

And then it made sense. And didn't. All at the same time.

When I was 15 my father introduced me to his mistress.

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