By Robin Jovanovich
It’s hard to recall when I felt the first twinge. I’m no diagnostician but if Donald Trump gets a clean bill of mental health, aren’t I Mensa material?
So why is it I’m worried that I’m in the early stages of cognitive conk out.
Let’s start with the catalogues I now find myself lingering over.
When The Vermont Country Store catalogue arrived in early fall already trimmed for the holidays, I didn’t immediately give it the recycling heave-ho. It seemed to speak to me — a family business even older than me that harkened back to a time when America was actually great, not fake-great. Wow! They had me at keepsake tins. And what about the Gilhoolie jar opener? Never saw that advertised on a local, late-night channel.
What person on my list would love one of those, I wondered? Not my younger son for whom I’d already bought a super-duper flashlight. Not my husband, who’s been handing me hard-to-open jars and cans since 1976. So, instead, I ordered him a double-weight bathrobe that would have fit Jackie Gleason to a T.
I moved on to the page with the comfy clothing, starting with Tyrolean flannel nightgowns, which I remember a few of my dorm-mates brought with them to college freshman year but tossed right after parents’ weekend.
You know who still bought those nightgowns in the 21st century? My mother-in-law. She also snapped up hard-to-find candies — in rolls! — and salves and face potions, which I have to admit seem to have done the trick. Martha Evelyn Davis Jovanovich looked better at 92 than any woman I know at 62 who hasn’t had a major overhaul.
Naturally, she had a cabinet full of silver polishes and creams and regularly encouraged me to start using my sterling, but <never, ever> put it in the dishwasher. I didn’t have the heart to tell her before she died that even the experts say it’s okay to put everything but the knives in.
When I occasionally and carefully free the silver from the Hagerty wraps, which my mother-in-law bought in abundance, I still worry that I’m using the wrong silver care products and question whether full immersion is necessary when cleaning.
In the same drawer as the silver is a copy of the New York Times article my mother-in-law mailed and/or faxed me at least a dozen times in 40 years. It explains how to set a table properly with the crustacean fork here and the fruit knife there. A few years before she died, I kindly explained to her that the world had gone stainless or at best silver plate. She cringed and then asked me if I needed a shellfish set she no longer used. She always forgot that I am deathly allergic to shellfish, which to a woman from Mobile, Alabama, was considered heresy.
You have to give it to those Southern belles however. They seem to be born knowing how to fold a linen napkin and don’t even mind ironing the occasional 12. As an early abhorrent of paper napkins, I often told my husband’s mother that she was in fact an early environmentalist. She didn’t necessarily know how to take that compliment.
So, what was it I gave my daughter-in-law, the mother of two youngins, for Christmas? A set of fine placemats and napkins that can’t be put in a dryer and ideally should be ironed while damp. At least they were navy blue, her favorite color. (And at least I didn’t give her a travel iron, as my mother-in-law gave me early in my marriage.)
I bought an oversized tin of Lincoln Logs, also from The Vermont Country Store, for our grandson, because my fading memory still burns bright when I think of the cabins my sister and I would build on weekend afternoons when we were snowed in (pre-global warming and pre the time when children were allowed to watch more than one program a weekend and never on a school night, expect on those rare occasions when your parents were out for the night).
But in the end I didn’t give them to my grandson. At close to 4, he’s on fast-forward, already constructing Lego cities, probably not interested in the boys’ life of Abe Lincoln or hearing about the golden olden days in which nearly every American slept by the fire in the kitchen in their non-insulated lean-to.
In the end, maybe my mother-in-law wasn’t as !#*^ing impossible as I imagined. I’m beginning to understand the appeal of those cozy mysteries she read in between biographical tomes about British prime ministers. I am not ashamed to have read “Mrs. Queen Takes the Train” over the long holiday break, while I was supposed to be reading a history of Bellevue, where madness lies, for my book club. In fact, I’m warming up to the Queen, who has a will of iron much like my late mother-in-law.
And hand it to my mother-in-law for sending Andy Warhol a fruitcake every holiday for years and getting a signed soup can (perhaps not the only one he did), a portrait of Chairman Mao (chilling), a stalky still life (I like mine Dutch), and a big electric chair (why go small), in return.
With that in mind, I recently wrote the Queen an admiring letter in the hope that she will send me one of her Canaletto’s in return. I may have mentioned I too was a dog lover, and I would have preferred cocktails with Harold Wilson (who, by the way, suspended the death penalty in England, Wales, and Scotland) over Tony Blair any day, too.