A Napkin Is Not a Hat
by Marge Lurie
Though it's the middle of the summer, a sticky 90 degrees in the shade, Miriam is cold. Cold enough that she does not want the air conditioning on in the house while we have our pre-prandial cocktails, and she does not want the car windows open on the way to the restaurant. Cold enough that when the maitre d' comes, Miriam asks him if he can turn off the air conditioning in the restaurant. When the maitre d' says that he would like to oblige, but, unfortunately, he cannot because his other customers will melt and his vegetables will wilt, she asks him if he has a hat for her. "Madame," he says, after the shock of the question has passed, "Madame, this is a restaurant, not a hat shop." It is not the answer that Miriam was looking for, but she knows how to make do if she must. "The quintessence of chivalry," Miriam says, and then with perfect poise, she places her napkin on her head. It's a white, no-frills, linen napkin, with a faint red lip print on one edge. The smudge of red lips sits at a rakish angle on the side of her head, due north of her right ear. She is happier now; she has never liked drafts on her head.
Oscar, Miriam's husband of 56 years, applauds her ingenuity. At 76, she has the same the-hell-with-you-all pluckiness he first admired all those years ago in the news room of their college paper.
At 46, I still wonder how I could possibly be related to this woman. To make the point, I fan myself furiously with my menu, as if I were trying out for the role of a Geisha. "She may be cold, but I'm not," I pantomime for everyone else in the restaurant. "I know I'm sitting with her, but look she's nuts. Not me."
Eventually, I put the menu down and roll my eyes at my boyfriend Chris, and he rolls his back at me, and we know that later, once we are back on the train to New York, we will laugh at this moment, but neither one of us feels like laughing now.
Maybe Chris's worried that I'm going to end up a nut job just like my mother, and maybe he's not thinking about that at all. Maybe he's just afraid the thing will escalate and, to get her to take her napkin off, the maitre d' really will turn off the air conditioner, and he'll wilt right alongside the vegetables. Maybe it's just me who's worried. Worried that one day I'll be as dotty as Miriam is, but that I won't have the audacity to put a napkin on my head when the time comes.