From my mother’s journal:
K’s party for contributors to the ACP....
Loads of people. Several Yale acquaintances of R’s...
I took $60 of cookies...
Wore DKNY tight blue dress.
K stands for Kookie, a nickname I could never shake. It’s cute, people say, like you. I might have been cute once, but at 48, my round dimpled face looks chubby to me. I blame my weight on 10-pound babies, the gourmet dinners my husband cooks, and all those work lunches with wine.
Oh, the wine. Since the birth of my first child (and the discovery of the healing powers of chardonnay) I’ve sipped my way through approximately 18 thousand glasses of white wine. This amounts to more than 2 million calories. And I’m not even counting the dinner party reds, or the dietary tequila and limes.
The party is at my house in Princeton, a town where the University reigns supreme. I try to invite faculty members, Toni Morrison, Cornel West and Joyce Carol Oats to these charity events, but they never come. The only celeb attending tonight (besides my mother, a minor deity in the collecting world) is the poet, Paul Muldoon. He and his wife support the “ACP,” the arts non-profit for which I am development director (a job attained by virtue of my mother’s influence).
In the living room, I pass a tray of hors d’oeuvres. “Delicious dumplings,” someone says, “did you make them?” I nod. The shaved radish was my idea, after all.
No dumplings for the aging blond in the tight blue dress. My mother is too busy flirting with R’s Yalie friend to eat. R is my mother’s younger-than-me boyfriend. His hand rests on her shoulder as if to say, she’s mine. He should know by now that it’s the other way around. He belongs to her. Everything belongs to her.
There’s Paul Muldoon leaning against the front door. Likely planning a hasty escape from those who swoon over his Irish brogue, rub-up against his Pulitzer creds.
I am one of those.
What else am I?
We’ve established that I am a cute, chubby hostess who makes delicious hors d’oeuvres (with a little help from Trader Joe’s). I am a social climber (only because of work). I have a room-size closet full of clothes in various stages of not fitting. I keep the receipts for what I spend at parties like these (including the outfits) and deduct the expenses from my taxes. It’s charity, after all. I am charitable, like my mother.
Four years later, my mother is dead. Taking charge of her estate, I discover how she spent her last ten years: In spite of her careful cookie accounting, she ignored her income taxes. She obtained loans on her house for more than its market value and maxed-out a half-dozen credit cards. She sold much of her good art, replacing paintings and sculptures with a “collection” of garage sale junk and items picked off the street while being driven around by R in the BMW she gave him.
What do I do?
I sell her stuff and pay her debts. It feels freeing. So, I sell my stuff too. I quit my job, move to Vermont with my good-cooking husband, and go to school. Now, at 58, I know exactly what’s in my closet because it’s exactly what I need. I still like wine, but it doesn’t like me. I’m no chubbier than ten years before.
I am writing a book about my mother. There’s no escaping.
Jeniah (Kookie) Johnson has been immersed in a mother memoir for the last six years. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2019. She lives with her artist husband, Tom Sheeran, and several pets (including a 150-year-old giant tortoise) in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. She is on the Board of Trustees of The Arts Council of Princeton, a non-profit arts organization which provides classes, exhibitions, community events and outreach programs for all. To learn more visit artscouncilofprinceton.org.