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Decorating and Entertaining


In the fifties my dad finally finished medical school, his internship and residency, and began making money as a radiologist, after a major career setback called The Great Depression, and my parents bought (with grandma’s money that she held onto through my grandparent’s divorce ((that grandfather was only divorced once, my other grandfather was divorced twice))) an actual small house, so we didn’t have to live with relatives anymore. In those days, you couldn’t just live in your new house, you had to “decorate” it so that you could “entertain.” On the old Chicago west side you didn’t entertain people, they just showed up, lots of them, mostly family, and made themselves at home, eating, smoking, drinking and playing pinochle and kalookie, games which involved a lot of arguing in English, Hungarian and Yiddish and slamming cards down on the table.


My mom was not one to take half measures with her new house. She immediately hired a Liberace clone “decorator” with peroxide blonde hair and a red Caddie convertible. He was not just faygela (yiddish for a little birdie & you know what), he was the most faygela person I had ever seen. A low-backed, eighteen foot long S-shaped sectional sofa arrived, in hot pink, which was the latest thing. With a kidney-shaped white marble coffee table (which my grandfather, the twice-divorced one, forgot he left a cigarette on the edge of and it burned down, leaving an interesting yellow streak impossible to remove). Kidney-shaped anything was hot in the 50’s. 


The fireplace end of the sunken (two tiny steps, almost invisible that caused people who had a few drinks to fall and break their arms and make insurance claims against my parents like their lawyer’s mother did) living room was done up in terrazzo by a crew of Italians who were grinding and filling the house with dust for a week. But my mom and Liberace decided the terrazzo was not quite right, so another crew arrived and covered the terrazzo with mirrors and continued the mirrors across the dining room wall. The beautiful oak floors were entirely covered with thick white wool carpet, impossible to keep clean, especially in winter with people arriving in slushy muddy galoshes. 


Was there “entertaining” in that house? There were countless dinner (always Hungarian food) parties, backyard parties, New Years parties, Passover seders, birthday parties, good times, lively conversation, a James Joyce group. There were cocktail parties with hors d'oeuvres provided by Al Capone’s younger sister (who owned a terrific Italian deli on Western Ave, where you could see actual gangsters arriving in their big black Cadillacs). 


At some point my dad declared the decorating and redecorating finished, and my mom’s energies shifted to a jazz dancing obsession. Fifty something years later, mom is gone, but dad is still sitting in their dining room, 95 years old, in front of that wall of mirrors, eating his breakfast cereal with cream, washing it down with huge cups of black coffee, and declaiming on the perfidy and stupidity of Republicans. Something must have changed in that house since the decorating 50’s, but I can’t think what it might be.