Was recently reading over some of the emails home that served as my journal of our three-year tour in Moscow. My late mother-in-law, God bless her, had the foresight to print out the ones she found interesting and collect them up into a file for me.
The backstory of the protagonist of one of my short stories, forthcoming this winter in CONSEQUENCE Magazine, was inspired by the love story of the first defense attaché that we served under in Moscow and his wife – though I sincerely hope that the general’s wife never found herself in the fictional situation I’ve thrown at my fictional admiral’s wife!
Here are a few bits about some activities hosted by Mrs. N-., the general’s wife. Looking back on it now, it’s strange to realize that she was also a veteran – of the Army Nurse Corps. I was shamefully underappreciative of the ANC’s history and contributions to gender integration in the military back in those days, and did not know nearly enough about the challenges that military service posed for women of Mrs. N-.’s generation. I might see these events in a different light if I’d had the context for them then that I have now. Or…maybe not.
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May 22, 1999
Wednesday – “Stitch-and-bitch,” Dave’s characterization of the infrequent (thank God!) “women’s fellowship teas” hosted by N-. N-., wife of our defense attaché. Military and civilian women expected to show for this one. Proper attire: linen dress (no, I don’t own one or want to) and pearls. I wore a business suit and my running shoes (forgot my heels in the office). Military wives, but not military members, are designated to pour tea and coffee according to their spouse’s rank and their time at post. Enlisted at one end of the table, officer at the other. This is a VERY outdated old Army tradition. The whole N-. family are ethical vegetarians at Mrs. N-.’s insistence (whatthehell does she think an Army general does for a living, if not kill things?)….Mrs. N-. herself was once in the Army. Hard to picture it: she has this squeaky voice and calls everyone “sweetie” and gives air kisses in greeting and farewell. All that said, it was a nice gesture and even though we were all very uncomfortable she sets a heck of a canapé table. She supposedly made them all herself – musta been three hundred little bites of stuff on silver trays. Decorations perfect, spring flowers in silver vases.
May 29, 1999
[One night next week] I’m going to a flower arranging class at General N-.’s house. Mrs. N-. has enough flowers and ribbon for six “students.” I have a helluva sense of humor – and honestly, some interest in flower arranging. I have to say that Mrs. N-. does a very classy job of it, so it should be interesting if I can just take being called “sweetie” for two hours.
June 1, 1999
I was actually out for a couple of hours yesterday evening without the boys, at General N-.’s ribbon-tying and flower arranging workshop. Mrs. N-., formerly an Army nurse, went to a vocational school class on flower arranging. According to the General, she has done these workshops for twenty years now. Eight students, the N-.s’ daughter X-. (a freshman at a Seven Sisters college), and Mrs. N-. “viciously twisted” and “tightly pinched” ribbon for an hour, then “forcibly inserted” floral foam into containers, “sliced” greenery and flowers, and “jabbed” them into the foam for a second hour. We were just roaring at Mrs. N-.’s aggressive language – she’s about the most harmless, passive person you can imagine, but it sure seems that there’s some repressed hostility there!
Topping off the evening, for me, was Mrs. N-.’s attire. She’s one of those disgustingly always-thin people who still has a perfect wasp-waist and no facial lines at age fifty-something. She was dressed à la June Cleaver: still-black hair pulled back into a bun, starched white blouse and navy A-line skirt, topped off with a ruffly apron. But what an apron. Army camouflage cloth, ruffled, with standard Army name tapes over the pockets – “N-. N-.” on the right, “U. S. Army Wife” on the left! We learned the Simple Package Bow, the Standard Florist’s Bow, and the Basic Dinner Table Floral Arrangement. Move over, Martha Stewart! My floral arrangement is pretty sad-looking. I was gabbing with the general’s daughter about [the college she was attending and the city it was located in], and got last pick of the daisies and greenery and baby’s breath. I didn’t quite get the cottage-cheese container I was using covered by greenery, and my flowers are downright ratty. That’s okay. I like them anyway.
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(Comment, 2015: I liked the general’s wife anyway, too. That apron? – not so much.)