I am a time traveler.
I stand in the present while I search to learn the history of the red house we have begun renovation on. As we rip down the lathe and plaster I wonder about this house and it’s inhabitants spanning over the past 260 plus years, distinguished by their simple square nails, their low ceilings and narrow doors ways and the clues that lie in the repurposed timbers and bricks, or their complex wallpaper.
I make my bed, shaking the four down pillows back into shape and flapping my new white cotton duvet across the mattress. It is piped in grey. I like the way it looks. The entire bed making process takes maybe 60 seconds. The mattress is new. It is from Ikea. It is packaged, rolled up like an oversized duffle bag, and shrink-wrapped in plastic with two black straps for handles. It cost $199. I located in in aisle 32, bin 26.
The mattress sits on a series of wooden slats that fit into a platform frame. The headboard is birch. The lines of the bed are clean, stark and Scandinavian, with room to store things underneath. I found that in aisle 28 bin 25 a week later, on another trip to Ikea. It cost $329 including the slates and the mid beam support bar. It came in two boxes. Will assembled it last week during Brian Williams and cocktail hour. Brian wore a tie I had selected for him. I miss that brush w fame.
I knelt down on the floor to pull out the white nylon box that stored my clothes and picked out what I would wear today. My wardrobe has been reduced to bare necessities. The choice was simple. Jeans and grey cashmere turtleneck, boots. Utilitarian. Practical.
As I brushed my teeth is thought how so very different my life is from that of either parent. I wondered as I pulled my sweater from this box, $5.99 – Ikea, what my father would think of all this, my stark simplified Ikea life and all? Would he call it adventure and folly or jingle the change in his pocket and clear his throat in disappointment.
My grandfather graduated from Harvard Business School in the early 1900s. He balked at the idea of heading to Wall Street and headed instead to the Orient to work for the Rockefellers, selling kerosene, which then led to an executive position with Standard Oil. My father and his brother were born in Canton, China and their family eventually found their way to Saigon in the 1920s. Their world was global. French schools, British rule, colleagues of all continents and more.
My grandmother kept marvelous records of their opulent life in China and Vietnam gluing black and white photos meticulously into heavy black leather albums of thick black paper and wrote captions in white ink in her long cursive handwriting. Her albums documented dinner parties and stylish dignitaries, rides on elephants with the Rockefellers, the boys amahs. Men in white shoes, triple pleated silk twill trousers. There are even portraits, silhouettes of their drivers and butlers. My uncle, fond of them all, hangs them in his house.
Eva May Lafferty never learned to speak French, or either of the dialogs, Cantonese or Mandarin, during the 20 years she lived there. She never had to assimilate into another culture. She was surrounded by a staff of dozens, and lived in a culture where women were socialites. She saw her children on Sundays.
After my grandmother died I inherited her extensive wardrobe of slips, robes and nightgowns. They filled several large trunks. Ivory, peach, pale green, chiffons and silk. Some embroidered, others clean and simple underpinnings. Expensive, sexy and elegant. She had them made by a dressmaker in the French quarter of Saigon. She brought her twelve-year-old son, my father, along to translate to her seamstress.
His translation skills were also put to use in the kitchen- armed with a copy of the The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer, marked with the recipes his mother had chosen to dine on, he spoke to the four cooks, translating roast beef into Cantonese. She never once ate anything that was not from Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, at least not in her own home.
My grandmother’s life, a century ago, certainly a far fry from my mattress, rolled in plastic, located in aisle 32, bin 26.