My grandparents lived on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Not just in the ritzy neighborhood known as Nob Hill, but literally on the top of Nob Hill. Their neighbor was The Fairmont Hotel. They had two Japanese housekeepers, Jack and Emileen.
Emileen would arrive early every morning. She’d open the front hall closet and remove a crisp white pinafore with eyelet trim demarking a ruffled neck and ¾ sleeve. A la Mr. Rogers, she’d exchange her civilian outer layer for her designated uniform. Jack would arrive shortly after in slacks and a dress shirt. They never spoke. I’m not sure what his responsibilities were. I saw him wash the windows once.
A few things to note that didn’t occur to me until recently.
1) This was San Francisco and Jack and Emileen were of the age that they were probably interned as children in camps during WWII.
2) There’s no way “Jack” and “Emileen” were their given names.
3) My grandparents had two servants to maintain a one-bedroom apartment.
If this seems awkward and bizarre, you’re right. It’s a family trait. There’s a special chromosome. A whole company had to be renamed 24 and Me to identify my genetic relations. Which brings me to Hanukah dinner.
My family and I arrived for the miracle of celebrating one out of eight nights with my parents and in-laws. As we entered, my mother burst into the kitchen, threw up her arms, yelled “ta da”, and posed. In Emileen’s pinafore.
My grandparents moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2003 and died almost 10 years ago. My mother packed, moved, unpacked, laundered and pressed said pinafores. How long had she been planning this performance piece? Frankly, I was disgusted. It was demeaning to the work Emileen had done and to the meticulous care she had taken in her appearance. I insisted my mother change. She obliged. Into a pink personalized chef’s coat.
And so dinner production ensued. The Pink Coat flitted about shoving chopped liver into the Guatemalan housekeepers’ (yes, there are two) mouths, while my husband and I prepared enough potato pancakes to serve the IDF. She had insisted on twelve potatoes.
Finally she declared it time to sit down and asked me to ladle the matzo ball soup. I scooped up broth and carrots. And tried again. Broth and carrots. Only. She had forgotten to take the matzo balls out of the freezer. (While they were premade, in her defense, they were homemade.)
As the rest of the family sat down at the table, my husband continued frying the remainder of the potato pancakes and I diligently defrosted matzo balls. We didn’t say a word. Jack and Emileen.