From the Relief Society Magazine, May 1958 –
Papa and His Grapes
by Florence B. Dunford
On ordinary occasions Celia was glad to see her Papa, but not today. Jamie, her best beau, was coming to dinner.
“Oh, Mama, why can’t Papa just stay downtown this one evening?” she mourned now. Celia was nineteen, but still of an age that looks askance at plain-spoken, plain-doing fathers. Jamie, of course, was anything but plain.
“He’ll be all right, really he will,” Celia’s mother comforted her. She was rather red-faced herself, bending over, polishing the French Provincial furniture in their old-fashioned house with its high ceilings and square rooms. Celia’s mother, when let alone, was a rather placid, cheerful, comfortable person, a trifle overweight, her gray eyes kind, really the motherly type.
“Mother, you think the turkey will be done?” Celia worried, going toward the kitchen. “Oh, isn’t this kitchen old-fashioned!” she cried, her voice desperate.
Her mother, weary now, trudged in behind her. “Well, anyway, you’re not.”
Celia was frowning over an etiquette book. “Mother, it says here …” Then her eye caught the big paper sack on the white tile counter. “Oh, Mother!” she wailed. “Papa and his grapes!”
For an instant her mother seemed about to rush forward, too. Then she swayed back on her heels. “Oh, Celia! I thought the house was afire. Why can’t you just accept the homely things your father does? After all, he’s lived in our small, comfortable town for all his forty years. And he really likes grapes.”
“Well, I don’t like seeing a big paper bag cluttering up the counter. There’s never any room in our tiny ice box. If I put them in a bowl, the fruit flies gather.
“Oh, Mother,” she wept, “can’t you make Papa be formal this one night? Jamie’s a city-bred man! His folks have had the same apartment on the crest of one of San Francisco’s hills all his life.”
While Celia stuffed the bag of grapes inside a lower cupboard next to the tall, old-fashioned gas range, Celia’s mother tried to reassure her.
“Let’s see, now, you want Papa at one end of the dining room table and me at the other end. You and Jamie across from each other. But your father always likes me to watch his plate,” she went on. “He hates having to ask for things to be passed.”
“Well,” Celia said, “I’ll serve from the kitchen. I’ll remove each course and bring in the next one.
“And please, Mama …” her voice faltered, “please, Mama, don’t let on that we don’t eat that way all the time! Why, Jamie’s mother has a maid! A real maid! Imagine what Jamie’d think if he saw the way we always eat family style!”
By now Celia had even her mother puzzled. “But we are a family.” She lifted her chin a bit stubbornly. “Why shouldn’t we eat family style?”
“Because …” Celia snatched up the etiquette book again. “Because, it says here …” She broke off. “Oh, what’s the use? I may as well give up. I’ll never get Jamie. All those months at school simply wasted!”
The moment Celia heard her Papa’s old black sedan chugging up the driveway toward the one-car garage, Celia, with a last half-pleading, half-warning look for her mother, hurried upstairs. Going back and forth between her bedroom and the bath, she heard her mother and father talking in now low, now louder, tones.
“Bless her,” Celia murmured, grateful tears coming into her eyes. Because Mother was really telling Papa about his old fashioned ways, the necessity of making the sort of impression Celia wanted on her hoped-for fiance. And, as usual, when Mother really meant business, Papa was listening. Though even now he was breaking in, grumbling about dinner being served at the unheard of hour of eight o’clock. “My father never ate supper after six in his life,” he fumed.
Celia’s mother succeeded in calming him. “It’s Celia’s future that’s at stake. She’s nineteen. At that age you thought you knew what was best for you, too.”
Celia’s mother had been so successful that, at a quarter of eight, just as the old fashioned buzzer on the front door sang through the house, announcing Jamie, her father came from her parents’ room downstairs, dressed in his tuxedo. As Celia flew down the stairs, her blue chiffon dress spreading fan-like around her, her dark-gold hair drawn back into a lady-like chignon, her grateful glance even noted his black bow tie, and cracked, but polished patent leather shoes.
There in the small entranceway with its fanlight, the rose-patterned paper on the walls, the friendly smell of turkey coming from the kitchen, Celia thought for one breathless instant that Jamie was going to kiss her. But tonight was different from times at college. This was Jamie’s formal visit to meet her parents, to decide. Celia was so in love that she was past minding that her own decision had been made long ago, and that Jamie might know it.
Dark-haired Jamie gave her his hat. Men, it seemed, still wore hats in San Francisco. San Francisco, Celia thought, with another catch in her throat, was perhaps one of the few formal cities left in the United States. Certainly in California.
Celia’s parents dutifully came into the living room, “parlor,” Papa called it.
“Jamie, I’d like you to meet my parents,” Celia said, her voice a little high and shaky. “Mother, Papa, this is James Thornton.”
Papa started to rock back and forth on his toes, giving Jamie the once-over as he did in court. But, just in time, Celia’s mother’s hand touched his arm, reminding him that this time he was the judged.
As far as Celia could determine, neither her father nor her mother behaved in any way but as quiet, modern, up-to-date parents, in their quiet, modern, up-to-date home. But there were times when Celia herself was a bit off balance. She wasn’t used to bringing in, or taking away. Once, Papa got a bit impatient at having to ask for his second helping of turkey. Once, for some unknown reason, Jamie choked, really over nothing.
But then he apologized at once, gulped from his goblet of water. And the quiet, rather dull dinner went on. Celia herself felt worn out when she had cleared the dessert plates and brought in the milk-white glass finger bowls. But even at this unusual occurrence, Celia could not detect any questioning in either of her parents’ faces or manner.
The dinner and the beginning of the evening, she felt, had really gone off very well. Later, perhaps, Jamie would ask if she’d like to go to a movie or dance.
Celia was unprepared when, rising from the sofa with a rather cold, faraway look in his dark, discerning eyes, Jamie asked if he could use the telephone.
“I hate rushing off like this,” he apologized,”but I’m due in San Francisco in the morning.” Jamie was just through law school and mentioned something about a deposition.
To make matters worse, Celia heard him discussing the possibility of changing his ticket. And then she knew, with a soul-sickening certainty, that for all her trouble, she had lost him.
Celia’s father and mother knew it, too. Celia saw the pitying glances they gave her, the look that passed between them. And then she simply couldn’t … She couldn’t bear the pretense a moment longer. Turning, she fled up the stairs.
It was quite a while before Celia felt she could face her parents again. Jamie, of course, would be long gone. It was ungracious for her to have let him go without saying goodbye, but Celia was grateful to her parents for not calling her downstairs before he left.
She took off the blue dress, scrubbed her face clean of make-up, unpinned her hair and scooped it into a pony tail behind. Now, clad in a clean but faded cotton dress, with white nylon flats on her feet, at least she felt herself.
Neither her father nor her mother was in the living room with the television. Crossing through the dining room, she saw that the white linen cloth was still on the table. And so were the finger bowls.
From the kitchen came voices. Straightening her shoulders, readying herself for her parents’ sympathy, Celia pushed open the swinging door.
The three people in the kitchen did not notice her entrance. Her mother was at the old fashioned sink, washing dishes. Her father, minus his tuxedo jacket, was rummaging in the icebox. And Jamie – it was Jamie! and minus his coat, too, with one of Celia’s faded old front aprons tied around his middle, a big white dish towel slung across one shoulder, was lounging against the high tile counter, his back toward her.
“Where’s my grapes, Hattie?” Celia’s father demanded. “Where’d you hide them this time?”
“Move to one side, please,” her father admonished Jamie. He dragged forth the paper bag of grapes.
“They’re already washed,” he went on, stretching out his hands with the open bag toward Jamie. “I always say there isn’t anything quite as tasty as a grape.”
“They’re my favorite after-dinner fruit, too,” Jamie agreed. And he helped himself to a double handful. Then he turned back to her mother.
“As I was saying,” he went on, “there isn’t anything I believe in more than in people being themselves.”
There in the doorway, for the first time, a shamed Celia was convinced of it, too.