The effusiveness of these writings was not typical of her; it was only canny marketing. “The copy,” my mother wrote in a note to the literary agent who was helping her place her pieces, “is patterned as closely as I could manage on the Journal’s kind of yummyese.”
In another note to the agent, she wrote, “I’m trying to work out an arrangement which will give me one whole free day a week (!!!) at the typewriter, but before I set out to hire all that baby-sitting I really would like some professional counsel from you.” What counsel was forthcoming the file doesn’t say, and I don’t know if she ever asserted her claim to that whole free day a week.
Editor's note: Longtime reporter and columnist Marjorie Williams was raised to disdain Mother's Day as a conspiracy by florists, though she later overcame this high-minded prejudice. Williams wrote this profile of her brilliant, complex mother after Beverly Williams's death and long before her own death of cancer in 2005 at age 47. (Excerpted from The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate)
Mother and daughters at the author's 1990 wedding. From left, Annie Williams, Beverly Williams, Marjorie Williams and Wistar Rawls.
There are a few mildly encouraging letters from others in the file -- one is a carbon copy of a note that one of my father’s colleagues at Little, Brown wrote to James Beard, asking his advice on the possibility that my mother might write a cookbook about “the feeding of children”; another is a note from Alfred Knopf Jr. of Atheneum Publishers, urging her to give him first crack at any cookbook she might write. (”The idea that you might have to compete with other publishers for this leaves me gasping with helpless mirth,” she replied, with the graceful humility that governed all these efforts.)
At some point (I can’t find a date on the manuscript, or any suggestion that she tried to sell it), she turned her hand to an account of her own self-education in food. “It was not until I gave up my job and began having babies that I really began to enjoy cooking consciously -- anything to get away from pablum and strained vegetables,” she wrote, with an asperity that was resolutely expunged from her spoken statements on motherhood.
My mother’s papers revealed a dry wit and the rhythms of a born writer. But our family narrative assigned all the verbal genius to my father, and, over the years, my mother was ever less able to show this plumage. At the end of 1962 all the correspondence simply stops. Soon after that, she began working as a substitute science teacher at a private day school in Princeton. And, by 1963, when we moved to Princeton, she was a full-time administrator at the school. Ultimately she did all the class scheduling there and stayed until her retirement in 1993, becoming one of those quietly powerful characters who stealthily run all the world’s social microcosms. I believe she liked the work a lot, and I have no way of knowing whether she regretted the abandonment of her brief effort to write about her passion. But I find myself treasuring these few letters and articles, as evidence of a time when her love for food seemed to be aligned -- or do I mean allied? -- with her best, most cheerful energies.
I can’t put my finger on when she changed. In one compartment of my mind I see a mother of graceful shape and flashing eyes, who wore her long hair in a sleek bun, held with big tortoiseshell pins. As girls, my sisters and I watched her dress for an evening out: I see a stiff red silk, heavily embroidered in gold thread; a little black dress with a plunging neckline; a flowing, cobalt caftan covered in bright flowers.