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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

The Small Rectangular Glass Dining Table

December 2021

Letty and I were eleven when I first went to dinner at her house. My parents told me her parents were famous actors, but what mattered to me was the potential friendship with a classmate at my new school.  The small rectangular glass dining table, set against the mirrored wall, seated four. I sat at one end with Letty next to me. Miss Hagen sat at the other end, Mr. Berghof next to Miss Hagen and beside Letty.

I have no idea what we ate or whether Miss Hagen or Margaret, their maid, prepared the meal. I remember two things. My posture (sit straight and do not cross your legs) and placement of my napkin and hands was important since Miss Hagan and Mr. Berghof could see all. I also remember that my friend’s mother complimented me so profusely I thought it an insult to her daughter. That and needing the perfect table manners at the glass table made me remember the very uncomfortable dinner. A lesson in diplomacy: Be polite to Miss Hagen to ensure she did not banish Letty and me from our budding friendship.

Around that time, our homeroom teacher told the class to write a story about someone we knew who was famous. I didn’t know anyone who was famous. A year or two earlier, my parents and I arose from our Boston area house to leave at 3:00 a.m. My father, a professor at the University of Maine, would have breakfast with Senator Margaret Chase Smith in Augusta, the state’s capital. Perhaps I pretended I met her that day and wrote about her. That was as close to a famous person as I had been.

Suddenly a snicker ran through the classroom. The title of Letty’s story: Gail. I was this unknown classmate from New England. She knew more famous people than everyone else in the room combined. Why would she write about me? A bid for friendship? I didn’t know, but it certainly made me curious about who she was. That’s why the dinner invitation and event intrigued me. Who was I about to meet when all I wanted was a friend?

Years went by as Letty and I spent more and more time at one another’s around-the-corner homes in New York’s Greenwich Village. On our first Christmas morning in our apartment at 2 Fifth Avenue, we were all dressed, beds made, breakfast eaten and cleared, and about to open presents. The doorbell rang. There stood Letty, dressed for the Christmas holiday. My mother went into one of her quiet panics. We had to have presents for Letty. I readily agreed to give up one of mine and she found another one or two from her hidden trove of future presents. It seems Letty’s mother and stepfather celebrated on Christmas Eve and left Letty quite alone Christmas morning. For the next five years, my mother was prepared. We had a chair for Letty with her presents on it. She was a member of our Christmas family always showing up promptly at 8:30. Being the youngest of my siblings, I enjoyed having her there.

Skip to college years and we ended up at different colleges in Colorado at the same time. Four years later, I was at the University of Edinburgh for graduate school and she at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) in London. We had several visits between Edinburgh and London she, my mother, and I going to events at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival and I visiting her at her Baker Street flat in London. On one of those occasions, we went to see Ms. Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That night she transformed into Uta for me. She and the part were perfect for one another. Backstage afterwards, I think all we did was say hello and hug. For the first time, I stood speechless before her.

Afterwards, we went to The White Elephant for dinner. Preordered as usual, the bowl of Uta’s strawberries arrived as soon as we sat down. I ate some before I spoke.

Uta, I was so deeply moved by your performance I could not utter a word. So powerful…the play, your acting.

Her face lit up  “That is exactly the response I always want, but so few offer it. Thank you.” No longer just Letty’s mother, at that moment Uta and I became friends. Although I’d seen her in several plays, for me, she never was an actress. Later in the next years, the rest of the 1960s through the ‘90s, I stopped to visit her when I went to New York. We sat in the familiar living room, Uta and I drinking 7 and 7, as we talked about books, our own writing, and exchanged our latest publications. We didn’t talk about the theater because I was never a part of that. Maybe we sometimes talked about teaching because we both taught, she in theater and I in special education. Sometimes we talked about family but not often. One time she told me what an excellent mother Letty was. When I told Letty that, she snarled back at me that that was all her mother ever had to say good about her.

Letty, don’t your realize what a high compliment that is from your mother? She was an awful mother. That was her admission, her admission that you accomplished something she never could no matter how much she wanted to. She admitted to me that her daughter, my friend Letty, did something she never could.

After 9/11, Uta had a stroke, attributable in part to that day’s tragedies. I went to see her in the hospital. One morning she told me she had a dream about eggs benedict and they were running off the edge of her dream. What a poetic image. I offered to make her eggs benedict. She, the excellent and particular cook, forbid it. She was probably right, as I’d never made a hollandaise sauce before. I would have done it to perfection for her, though, even if I’d had to throw out my first four tries. No, you tell Letty to get me some from such-and-such a restaurant. I told Letty and still have never made eggs benedict.

Fast forward once again another few decades when Uta’s granddaughter and Letty’s daughter, Teresa, was no longer my son’s occasional childhood friend. I take Pilates lessons from her once a week. She had now become one of my adult friends. We talk about everything—marriage, children, divorce, family, and work.

I am Letty’s friend. I am Uta’s friend. I am Teresa’s friend. How often does one get to be close friends across three generations within the same family? It all began at the small rectangular glass top dining room table in a room barely big enough for the table and four people.

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