But in the next, much larger compartment is the mother I knew for most of my life, who dressed to conceal. This was the mother we teased because she never wanted to go swimming, until finally, one day, she told me that she just couldn’t stand to be seen in a bathing suit. I associate the change in her with one of those nights out, when she went to New York to meet my father, and then appeared at breakfast the next day with her hair chopped bluntly to her chin. But that’s just a trick of memory: It was a much slower process, cresting when my sisters and I were adolescents.
Looking back, it is as if her camouflage deepened in step with the flowering of her culinary skills. Her table became famous among her friends for its loving excellence. My parents threw frequent dinner parties, at which bittersweet chocolate mousse was served for dessert in old china demitasses, with spares made in the chipped cups for me and my sisters to eat upstairs, using tiny silver spoons. Once James Beard came to dinner, massive and pleasant; my mother made a crown roast of lamb, and always remarked on the way that none of the guests dared utter a satisfied word about the food, so cowed were they by the master’s presence. By the time I was old enough to understand something of adult life, I knew that my parents were an awesome tag team: My father’s publishing career was in its ascendance, and the guests who came to eat my mother’s food were sometimes famous. I have some fine first editions with inscriptions from their authors praising my mother’s food or thanking my parents for a pleasant evening. My parents’ house drew the town’s writers, and the writers who came to Princeton as temporary faculty members learned that it was a haven, where they could eat the best food in town.
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.
Once my parents planned a spectacular dinner for Carlos Fuentes -- how they snagged him I don’t know; they hardly knew him -- and invited a tableful of people who were more ornaments than friends. Afterward, one guest -- the wife of a famous Cold Warrior -- wrote my mother a gushingly patronizing note, all about what a wonderful cook she was, and what a terrific outlet this must be for her creative energies.
My mother bore such condescension well; she was used to being addressed as my father’s supporting cast. She hardly seemed to sit down at these parties, or at big family meals, and always occupied the chair nearest the kitchen so she could dart back and forth. Her province was the kitchen, and my father’s was the living room; thinking back over my childhood, I almost reflexively place myself in the short passage between these two rooms, by the back stairs -- the one spot from which you could see into both rooms and both lives. The conversation in the living room was, to a teenager and young adult, literally fascinating -- the fun these grownups seemed to have, their joy in their own cleverness, the easy eminence of some of the guests, the satisfaction of everyone who was included in the circle of my father’s regard. I listened hungrily for evidence of what adult life might be, and how it could be managed along lines less self-denying than the example my mother was setting in the next room.